SIGNIS REVIEWS JANUARY 2016
BIG SHORT, The
DANISH GIRL, The
EXPERIMENTER: THE STANLEY MILGRAM STORY
GOOD DINOSAUR, The
NOWHERE BOYS: BOOK OF SHADOWS, The
STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS
THE BIG SHORT
US, 2015, 130 minutes, Colour.
Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, Brad Pitt, Marisa Tomei, Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater, John Magaro, Melissa Leo, Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez.
Directed by Adam Mc Kay.
The Big Short has been receiving award nominations for its screenplay. This is not surprising. It is both interesting and engaging script, very serious in its subject and issues, but interlaced with some broad humour, some caustic humour, some satire, which tends to make the serious message even more serious.
There have been a number of films about the Global Financial Collapse, a very interesting television movie about the banks, the government, the key players portrayed by very strong cast of character actors, Too Big to Fail (2011). Then there was the extravaganza of extravagance in The Wolf of Wall Street (2012). And audiences will bring their response to these films their own experience of the repercussions of the GFC.
This one opens in 2005 and shows four individuals who are very wary about the financial situation in the US and the possibilities for a financial collapse and the consequences for the rest of the world. They are looked on by the establishment as eccentric if not foolish, their criticisms of banking methods, investments in hedge funds is, the industry of buying and selling on mortgages…
For the impact of the film, four serious actors bring these men to life.
We have come to rely on Christian Bale to portray complex characters on screen. He does it again with Michael Burry, a medical doctor with an interest in finance, his own company, very diligent in research, acting on his intuitions that something was very wrong, coming to bankers who politely listen to him, then impolitely laugh at him – until they are caught up in banking collapses. His investors are often very worried, especially as Michael Burry is an unconventional character, in what he wears and what he doesn’t wear (including shoes) and his seemingly cavalier belief in his own reading of situations.
Then there is Ryan Gosling, younger banker, who turns to comment to the audience now and again to confide in them. He is not lacking in’s self-assurance either, talking up his capacities, very much involved in persuading others to follow his lead.
One of those who does is a financial expert, Mark Baum. He is played with extraordinary intensity by Steve Carell who, over many years, has proven himself as an expert comedian, Bruce Almighty, The Office, 40 Here Old Virgin, the Ron Burgundy films, but has shown in recent years a capacity for a variety of serious roles: Foxcatcher, Freeheld, and this banker, with some righteous beliefs in justice, but impatient in his confrontations with everyone, especially his collaborators, and forthright in giving speeches to groups and to individuals, who is prepared to face the risks and is proven correct.
The fourth character, quite subdued in contrast, is a bearded, bespectacled, not immediately recognisable Brad Pitt, a man of sound sense, good advice, who encourages some young upstarts in their theories and speculations, who are looked down on but proven correct although they have to face the social and justice consequences of their success.
As with all these films, there is a fine supporting cast, rather eclectic including British Rafe Spall along with Hamish Linklater as collaborators of Mark Baum, and Marisa Tomei as his patient wife.
This is not to say that the film is easy to follow. One has to take on faith a lot of the dialogue from the four central characters and trust that they know what they are talking about. But, in some moments, the screenplay introduces celebrity characters to do a bit of explaining, although Margot Robbie (the wife of The Wolf of Street) is somewhat distracting doing her seductive speech in a bubble bath but Selena Gomez, watching gamblers in a casino and showing how onlookers bet amongst themselves, bets increasing in size, almost distracted from the initial bet at the table, indicates some of the risks that financial players undertake.
Film buffs will be surprised when they see the name of the director and the co-writer of this film, Adam Mc Kay. He is best known for his work in broad American comedies, often with Will Ferrell, including the Ron Burgundy comedies and as producer of Daddy’s Home. Whatever his talents with comedy, he has used them with great effect in combination with the serious financial issues of this film.
The characters are so well drawn and performed, the dialogue so much a blend of the witty and the harsh, the issues so serious in recent financial history, that the film probably repays a second viewing.
At the end, the voice-over says that many of the bankers went to jail for their misdeeds – and then adds, “just kidding!”. For anyone who is intrigued by The Big Short, see the film 99 Homes showing the disastrous result of the GFC on homeowners unable to pay their mortgages and their loans, ousted from their houses, will find it is a sobering postscript to The Big Short.
Ireland/UK/Canada, 2015, 111 minutes, Colour.
Saiorse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters, Domnhall Gleeson, Fiona Glascott, Jane Brennan, Eileen O' HiggIns?, Peter Campion, Jessica Pare, Maeve Mc Grath.
Directed by John Crowley.
Yes, it is the Brooklyn of New York City, but the title of the film might also have been called the name of any town in Ireland. The setting is 1952. The prospects for young women in Ireland at the time were very limited and so quite a number of them migrated from the Irish towns to the United States and found success there, especially in New York City, especially in Brooklyn.
A lot of audiences who like good cinema will enjoy this film very much.
With the first part of the film in Ireland, the focus on a family, an older sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott) an accountant with a local firm as well is something of a golf champion, the mother (Jane Brennan) rather dependent on her daughters and Ellis, the younger daughter whose only job is on Sundays at the local bakery for the women coming out of mass, subject to the dictates of the owner, Miss Kelly, something of a snob as well as a gossip. It seems important that Ellis go to the United States – and Rose, with a priest friend in Brooklyn, Father Flood (a sympathetic Jim Broadbent) is able to arrange a ticket, accommodation and a job in an upmarket New York store.
Ellis has her friends, but is ready to go, something of a wrench from her family, are reserved and shy young woman venturing to a new world – especially the hard and seasick voyage.
Word needs to be said about the leading actress, Saoirse Ronan. She made quite an impact as a child actor, even getting an Oscar nomination for Atonement. She appeared in Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones and Peter Weir’s The Way Back. She now is in her 20s and has made the transition to adult actress with great skill and screen presence, communicating often with her expressions and body language rather than through words. She has received nominations for her performance as Ellis.
It is not as if high profile events happen in Ellis’s life. This is a story of ordinary people. Audiences will enjoy the scenes at the meal table at the boarding house, presided over by Mrs Keogh (Julie Waters at her best, controlling, religiously earnest, and chuckling at the boarders’ lives). Then there are the scenes in the shop with Ellis rather awkward at first, commanded by her supervisor (Jessica Pare) always to be smiling to attract customers back. At one moment, overcome by homesickness, Father Flood comes to the shop and he and the supervisor show concern for her – as they do later when news comes of Rose’s sudden death.
Ellis goes down to the parish dance on a Saturday night, a local parish, an Irish enclave, only to find a young man attracted to her, wanting to dance, talk, walk her home. He is Brooklyn plumber, Tony (Emery Cohen) – but an Italian! There is a nice courtship, Ellis gradually overcoming some awkwardness, dressing a little more colourfully, coming out of herself, even practising eating spaghetti as she is invited to Tony’s home and family.
There are some dramatic moments for Ellis, including Tony’s proposal for a marriage at City Hall, as well as Ellis’s return home, Rose’s funeral, meeting her old friends, mothers not resisting the urge to be matchmakers and introducing Ellis to a fine young man, Domnhall Gleeson. Which means that Ellis, in many ways enjoying being back in Ireland, has to make a decision as to whether she will stay or not, return to Tony…
While there are many serious undertones, this is a very likeable film, likeable and interesting characters – and, surprisingly these days, a very sympathetic picture of the Catholic Church and priests in the early 1950s, the Ministry and concern, not like those old parish priests back home in Ireland.
US, 2015, 118 minutes, Colour.
Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Sarah Paulson, Jake Lacy, John Magaro.
Directed by Todd Haynes.
It is something of a surprise to find that the novel on which this film is based is by Patricia Highsmith, best known for her thrillers, including Strangers on a Train, filmed in 1951 by Alfred Hitchcock, the period in which this story is set.
The early 1950s were considered to be a rather calm period in American society – at least with what was to follow in the 1960s. Sexual orientation was not an issue that was discussed in public. This is the context of Carol’s story.
Carol is a wealthy middle-aged woman, divorced but with a little daughter, in some ways subdued by her dominant husband and his family, but seeking some kind of independence, especially in a relationship with Abby, a friend from school days. Her husband and his parents see this as an aberration and encourage her to therapy.
The other central character is a younger woman, Therese, who works in a department store. One day she is attracted by the very well-dressed, demure but assured Carol, sells her a train set as a gift and contrives to return to her the gloves that Carol had misplaced in the store. This leads to a meeting, to a lunch, to a relationship that is significant for both women.
Her husband is able to hold over Carol the threat of not being able to see her daughter. Nevertheless, she goes on a cross-country car ride with Therese. Her husband has not given up on her and the couple is surprised at a motel in the midwest. Carol is compliant, wanting to see her daughter, and her friend, Abby, flies out to bring Carol back to New York.
Can there be a future for the couple? Can Carol be assertive about herself as well as her demands on seeing her daughter? Can Therese move on and find a life on her own?
Over the years, director Todd Haynes has explored aspects of sexual orientation and relationships, especially in Far From Heaven with Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid, again set in the 1950s and, as with this film, styled, costumes and decor and make up, and photographed in the modes of the period. In some ways this distances the audience from the situation, looking back and making responsive judgements and only then reflecting on the issues of same-sex relationships in the 21st century.
Rooney Mara as Therese won the best actress award at the 2015 Cannes film Festival. But, it is Cate Blanchett who is centre screen as Carol, which many say is Cate Blanchett’s career-best (but they tend to say that about each of her performances). Sarah Paulson is Abby.
The film is meticulously produced, very fine in its performances, paced in a way that allows us to enter into the two characters, appreciate their needs, their attitudes, their relationship.
US, 2015, 133 Minutes, Colour.
Michael B.Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Tony Bellew,Graham Mc Tavish.
Directed by Ryan Coogler.
Those who saw the original Rocky film might scarcely believe that it is almost 40 years since it was released, was extraordinarily popular, won the Oscar for best film. Sylvester Stallone invested a lot of in this character, not only in performance, but writing the screenplay and writing sequels and directing some of them? He even made a comeback in 2006 with Rocky Balboa.
Somebody had the bright idea – and, box-office wise, it is a bright idea – to imagine that Apollo Creed, Carl Weathers in the original films, had an illegitimate son who found out who his father was and wanted to become a boxer, had successful fights under the radar in Mexico, had grown up after his time in juvenile detention to become a successful businessman. But, he wants to give up all this in order to box, to make his own way in the tradition of his father, but using his mother’s name to avoid capitalising on his father’s reputation. He is played by Michael B.Jordan who was the star of the director, Ryan Coogler’s social drama, Fruitvale Station.
So, off he goes to Philadelphia to track down Rocky – Sylvester Stallone at 69. He finds him in his restaurant, but Rocky feels that he is old and cannot consent to train the young man. But, his memories come back, remembering Apollo Creed and his death, but also remembering Adrian his wife and Paulie his trainer, even going to the cemetery to sit with them at their graves and read the news to them. And so, of course, he does decide to train the young man, and there are plenty of vigorous training sequences – vigorous for Adonis Creed, calling himself Donnie Johnson, from his mother’s name, not so vigorous for Rocky himself.
Rocky is not as healthy as he might have imagined and, remembering the death of Adrian and the ineffectiveness of chemotherapy, he decides against it until Adonis challenges him to fight and win with him.
The screenplay, of course, works in a romance, featuring Tessa Thompson as a singer in a club whose loud music in her apartment disturbs Adonis but, when he sees and hears her singing, falls for her and she for him. They get on well together, though there is a falling out when Adonis, angry at Rockies illness, loses his temper with one of her support band members and it looks as if there may might be a serious break.
A Rocky film would not be a Rocky film without a final 12 round boxing battle. This time it is in England, in Liverpool, with the world heavyweight champion, “Pretty” Ricky Conlon. Adonis is the underdog but, by the 12th around, even non-boxing fans will be on his side.
Of course, the screenplay is open to a sequel, to Creed 2 – and initial box office results should be strong enough to persuade Hollywood to make the sequel.
US, 2015, 96 minutes, Colour.
Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Linda Cardellini, Thomas Hayden Church, Scarlett Estevez, Owen Vaccaro, Bobby Cannavale, Hannibal Buress.
Directed by Steven Anders.
Over the years Will Ferrell has become a household name for broad American comedies, relying on his capacity for big and exaggerated characters, generally overbearing with the touch of the obnoxious – like Ron Burgundy. Mark Wahlberg on the other hand, has moved over several decades from Calvin Klein model and musician to a skill with all kinds of films, especially action films. They appeared together in the police comedy, The Other Guys.
In this film, they both play fathers – well, Will Ferrell plays a stepfather.
His character, Brad, is rather the opposite of the big, booming characters. This time, he is a very nice man who narrates the story and the place who finds himself in, having fallen in love and married Sara, Linda Cardellini, but also inheriting her two young children with whom he is desperate to bond. They feel no such desperation. When there seems to be some kind of movement, the little girl not drawing him as dead already but only being killed in one of her drawings and her brother confiding that he is bullied at school.
But, Brad‘ hopes are somewhat stymied by a phone call from Dusty, Mark Wahlberg, the ex-husband and father who decides that he will return and take over his paternal role. He barges past Brad, intrudes into the household, tries to play with everybody’s mind, but the children delighted to see him, his ex-wife not.
What follows is a series of comic episodes where the two men try to outdo each other, Dusty with the tough stance (the screenplay makes him unexpectedly articulate with a strong vocabulary in the intellectual sense, probably Special Ops), Brad always being very nice, falling into the victim role. They vie with the children’s attentions in reading a bedtime story which parallels home situation. Brad tries to ride Dusty’s bike only to find himself crashing through the house, upstairs, stuck on the wall while the bike flies out of the window, crashing and crushing the roof of his car. Dusty claims he can do the repairs and suggests that Brad fire the carpenter, a black man, Griff. Brad seems to be a racist – and then Dusty and Griff complete the treehouse the Brad was working on and Griff becomes part of the household. And so on.
Audience sympathy is with Brad, who takes Dusty to his work at a Smooth Jazz radio station when they are auditioning for talent – and, Dusty sings their identification jingle and gets the job instantly which pays more than Brad’s salary. His boss, played dryly by Thomas Hayden Church, is taken with Dusty.
One of the characteristics of an American comedy is that it can be loud, very loud, embarrassing events taking place in public, the kind of boisterous exhibitionism which can seem very silly. The big example of this takes place in a basketball arena with Brad making an extreme fool of himself. There is another scene at the end, at a daughter-father dance where Dusty is put to the test as a father, and Brad’s theory that instead of fighting, conflict might be solved by dancing. And, pleasantly, it is.
There is an amusing postscript where all seems happy ending, Brad and Sara have, more than they expected, a new baby. And Dusty has a new wife and has inherited a daughter – whose real father turns up on a huge bike and reacts to Dusty as Dusty had reacted to Brad!
THE DANISH GIRL
UK, 2015, 120 minutes, Colour.
Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ben Whishaw, Sebastian Koch, Amber Heard.
Directed by Tom Hooper.
An emotional and challenging film.
The screenplay is based on actual characters and events, with a setting in Copenhagen in 1926. It is the story of Einar and Gerda Wegener and issues of gender and transgender surgery. This was rare in the 1920s as well as in succeeding decades but the issues are relevant today.
This is a very handsome film to look at, beautiful photography recreating the period, using Norwegian locations for coastal sequences, views of Copenhagen at the time, some time spent in Paris, Dresden as the scene for the surgery.
The Danish Girl has been directed by Tom Hooper, who made a television impact with his series on Elisabeth I, who won an Oscar for directing The King’s Speech and was also nominated for Les Miserables.
The successful impact of the film depends on the central performance by Eddie Redmayne. Tom Hooper had directed him as Marius in Les Miserables. And then, surprisingly, Redmayne won the Oscar for best actor, 2014, for his portrayal of scientist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. His performance here has Oscar and other awards potential.
Not every actor could be cast as Einar Wegener. Redmayne has a slight build and so makes the gender issues credible, observing his body, speculating on what it would like to be female. But, with the first part of the film, he has to play the Danish artist, Einar Wegener, and establish that he was male. However, because the film is not a documentary but a drama, the screenplay has to make suggestions that Einar is not comfortable in his body, that he has had some female feelings, posing for his wife, Gerda, wearing stockings and a dress, feeling the texture of the materials, becoming more and more comfortable as female, appearing as female, dressing as female. This is tested out, Gerda doing the dressing and the make up, when he goes to a party and is taken for a woman. Lili is the name that he chooses for this inner self.
While Gerda, a beautiful performance by Alicia Vikander (her films of 2015 include The Testament of Youth, Ex Machina, Burnt), is supportive of her husband, his withdrawing from being Einar and allowing his inner Lili to emerge, finds it difficult, has a need for her husband. She paints and sketches him as Lili and her agent arranges for her to go to paint and exhibit in Paris. Lili is very comfortable in Paris, not painting, working as a shop girl in a store.
Childhood friend, Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts, Gabriel Oak in Far from the Madding Crowd) comes to visit and offers his help. Doctors examining the case offer frightening solutions including electric shock, holes in the head, straitjacket internment in an institution… However, a German doctor in Dresden has developed procedures for transgender surgery and Lili agrees to undergo the changes.
Statistics indicate that there are many transgender people in society but most people do not encounter them, learning about the situation principally from the media. The film offers a significant opportunity for reflecting on this gender situation, its consequences on the psyche of a person, on their social place in the world, on the desire for some kind of solving of the personal dilemmas. With its setting of the 1920s, audiences will find the film easier to look at and reflect on, a touch more detachment because of the past – but still the challenge is in the present.
Over the decades, there have been a number of films about transgender surgery including: The Christine Jorgensen Story, 1970, based on a real life situation in Denmark in the 1950s; I Want what I Want, 1972, with Anne Heywood; Second Serve, 1986, with Vanessa Redgrave as Dr Renée Richards, the tennis champion and surgeon, and Carlotta, with Jessica Marais, about the entertainer from King’s Cross, screened on ABC television in 2014. Unlike The Danish Girl, the last three films featured an actress portraying a man becoming a woman.
EXPERIMENTER: THE STANLEY MILGRAM STORY
US, 2014, 98 minutes, Colour.
Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder, Anthony Edwards, Jim Gaffigan, Kellan Lutz, Dennis Hayesbert, Anton Yelchin, John Leguizamo, Lori Singer, Vondie Curtis- Hall, Josh Hamilton.
Directed by Michael Almereyda.
Perhaps you too had to ask, who is Stanley Milgram. And why a film about him?
The first answer is that he was the son of Jewish migrants who made their way to the United States, who was well educated and, by the beginning of the 1960s, with his interest in sociology and psychological ramifications, began a series of experiments at Yale University. Hence the title of this film.
While the film is a biography, it is something more of a portrait, not a particularly long running time, so dipping into Milgram’s experiences, his initial tests, reactions to his tests, some favourable, some unfavourable, and then other investigations that he conducted. More of an academic, with the touch of introversion, there are some glimpses of his personal life, especially his initial encounter in an elevator and then, awkwardly, at a party, with the young woman who was to become his wife, mother of his children. There are glimpses as the years go on, she sometimes working with him, some tensions with the children. But this is always secondary to his experiments. It is good to see Winona Ryder as Milgram’s wife.
We are introduced to the experiment where two people volunteer to be teacher and pupil and waivers are signed about their free participation in the experiments. The pupil goes into a room where there is machinery while the teacher stays outside, observed by the supervisor and Milgram and others behind a glass panel. The aim of the exercise is for the teacher to test the pupil and, after experiencing an electric shock himself so that he knows what it feels like, to give the pupil and electric shock for every mistake made, the intensity of the shock increasing every time.
The aim of the experiment is to show how most people are conditioned to obey authorities, even to inflicting punishments when their feelings are against doing this. The film offers a collage of quite a number of teachers, the variety of their reactions, yet their always following through. One of the main connections made, with some visuals in the film of Adolf Eichmann and his defence in his trial in Israel and the memory of what Hannah Arrendt called “the banality of evil”. Ordinary people obeyed authorities and inflicted pain on others.
Not everyone agreed with Milgram and some said that he was crawl, actually inflicting pain, and were critical of his experiments.
One of the devices of the film is to have the actor Peter Sarsgaard, who plays Milgram, turning to camera and often communicating his thoughts and reactions to the audience, involving them more in the action, for and against his experiments. Another interesting device is the filming of his experiment for the television program, with William Shatner and Ossie Davis playing teacher and pupil, discussing how they will perform the experiment – which we, the audience, have also seen in performance than making the assumption that we have seen the real experiment.
Two other experiments are dramatised, one familiar where a person stands in the street staring into the sky and through conscious or unconscious peer pressure, people start to look up into the sky for no reason at all except that others are doing it. In another experiment, people are photographed and their reactions to examining the portrait of themselves become the subject of research.
Milgrom died at the age of 51 in 1984 after work at Yale, Harvard, in New York City – and the film makes an interesting point at the end when he is taken to hospital, his wife urging the receptionist for a doctor, the receptionist interested first in the filling out of every form, which his wife does.
The Experimenter offers audiences quite a lot to think about in terms of responsibility, decisions, expectations of authority and fulfilling those expectations.
US, 2015, 124 minutes, Colour.
Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Edgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Dascha Polanco, Elizabeth Rohm, Susan Lucci, Laura Wright, Ken Howard.
Directed by David O. Russell.
Joy is a rather generic name for a film. We might expect experiences of joy and, by contrast, experiences of sadness. But Joy is the name of the central character, based on actual person, Joy Mangano. With her invention of the squeezing mop, the title of the film could have been Mop.
Audience expectation is high with Jennifer Lawrence in the central role. She had worked with the director, David O. Russell on The Silver Linings Playbook and won an Oscar for best actress. She also worked with him on American Hustle, a small role, striking and Oscar-nominated. Here she is the central character. She also works again with Bradley Cooper as she did in the previous Russell films as well in the period drama, Serena.
In fact, the film begins with sequences from a black and white, very stolidly photographed and performed, soap opera. The audience needs to keep this in mind as we watch because Russell is very serious with his American dream drama, with its touches of nightmares, contrasting with the soap operas. Indeed, the soap opera continues throughout the film, later developments in colour and more sophisticated filmmaking, constantly watched by Joy’s mother, Terry, Virginia Madsen, a recluse after her divorce, living in her room, dependent on her television program.
We see Joy as a child, with her half-sister, Peggy, friends but with a touch of rivalry. Their father, Rudi, who owns a repair business, is played by Robert De Niro.
The screenplay then cuts out a lot of information (later to be taken up in flashbacks) and we find Joy, married and divorced, a mother of two children, working for an airline, a mortgage on her house, living with her grandmother and her reclusive mother, not many prospects in life. As she meets with her best friend, Marie, Dascha Polanco, we are treated to flashbacks about Joy, going to a bar, meeting the singer, Tony (Edgar Ramirez), then bonding, marriage, the years going past, two children, his not getting a satisfactory job, his living in the basement, Joy and Tony still good friends. And then her father wants somewhere to live and is put in the basement where he fights continually with Tony.
There is a development when Rudi makes an online dating connection, a widow called Trudi (Isabella Rossellini) and they hit it off. It is on a yacht cruise where they are forbidden to drink red wine which could stain the teak wood work, where they do drink it, spill it, and Joy mops it up, cutting her hand – but, having invented things in her childhood, gets her thinking about a mop that one needn’t have to handle but could be squeezed by an inner mechanism.
Audiences may be surprised that they are spending so much time in the development of the Mop, the production of the Mop, money loans, promotion of the Mop.
Trudi does give a loan although she has fixed ideas about business. When Joy tries to demonstrate the use of the mop outside K Mart, she is arrested. The local parish priest has gathered together a number of Hispanic women who need work and they combine to become the company who makes the Mops.
Tony has a connection with a producer at a television shopping channel, Neil, played by Bradley Cooper. By insistence and force of personality, Joy demonstrates the mop for Neil, persuades him to let her advertise – with the screenplay giving us an idea about the origins of these channels, the developments, the revolving stages, the process of filming, the number of phone calls, the business success.
The American dream becomes a nightmare when the salesman spoils the whole demonstration – with Joy then determined to do it herself, defying the advice for make-up and clothes, freezing at first, and then warming to the situation and the sales rocket.
That would be too good to be true. As has been said, the American dream has nightmares and there are all kinds of clashes, especially with her sister Peggy who wants to control things with the support of her father, and issues of bankruptcy especially with Trudi, confrontation of the factory owners in California, the discovery of fraud from Texas – and Joy, studying the documentation, confronting the enemy, succeeds and her dreams come true.
Whether they had been put off by a such a study of Mops, a number of commentators decided that the film was rather trivial and silly – but, it seems they have underestimated Jennifer Lawrence’s screen presence and performance, the strength of the supporting cast, the value of the American dream for someone who might have been very ordinary and unachieving American housewife.
THE NOWHERE BOYS: BOOK OF SHADOWS
Australia, 2015, 83 minutes, Colour.
Dougie Baldwin, Joel Lok Rahart Adams, Matt Testro, Darci Mc Donald, Sean Rees- Wemyss, Angourie Rice, Tamara Shelton.
Directed by David Caesar.
Created by Tony Ayres (The Home’s Song Story), The Slap, Cut Snake), The Nowhere Boys was a very popular television series on the ABC, screened in Australia and overseas. It ran for 26 episodes and was critically received and won awards.
This is the spinoff which will appeal to the young fans of the television series.
There is some recapitulation of the plot of the series for those not familiar with it. The four boys, on a bush excursion, get lost in another time dimension, experience good and evil, magic, and eventually return to their country town of Bremin.
It is now a year later and the group have tended to split, some involved with there own magic (like Andy, the Asian Australian student); like Jake, who is wanting to win a scholarship because of his football talent; like Sam, rather self-centred, skateboard champion, modelling some of the clothing gear and sought after for autographs. Still focused on the magic is Felix who works with his wheelchair-bound brother, Oscar. The four have magic powers and they represent Earth, Air, Fire, Water.
The two brothers are examining a lair that they have found with all kinds of magic and, when they discover a book hidden under the floorboards which they cannot open, it is time to get the full group together for combined magic – which works but at the cost of surrendering the talisman they found in the other world, dividing it into four, but giving each magical powers.
In case this looks to male-oriented, the boys have girlfriends in the school, Mia likes Sam but is irritated by his vanity, Ellen likes Felix, and Andy’s sister is exasperated with his imposing on her to take photos of his magic exploits.
But then comes Tegan from another world whose quest is to recover the magic book and destroy it. She becomes friends with the other girls and enables them to have powers – not above some “mean girls” upsetting other students at school and tipping the boys over and mocking them.
Obviously, it is all building up to a confrontation, also involving the brothers’ father who seems to have magic connections, some protectors from the other world who try to get order out of confusion, and some popping back into the alternate world by Andy to see a girlfriend; Sam is lost in “negative space” and its darkness, before all combine to overcome the dark side.
There are some references to Harry Potter – and so this is kind of Antipodean variation on Harry Potter stories and magic.
Germany, 2013, 150 minutes, Colour.
Tom Payne, Stellan Skarsgaard, Ben Kingsley, Olivier Martinez, Emma Rigby, Makram Khouriy.
Directed by Philip Stolzl.
The physician is based on a large historical novel by Noah Gordon, adapted for the screen in a German production by Philip Stoltzl. The film is reminiscent of those long and large spectacles from the 1950s and 1960s, taking audiences into distant times, exotic lands and cultures, opening horizons into the past.
The film opens in England in 1020, in the harsh villages of the mining communities, with a young boy who sees his mother die of the “side sickness” and who cannot be adopted as are his younger siblings because he’s too old. He runs after the travelling Barber who accepts him, especially in his performances, spruiking his wares and medicines. But the young man has a great desire to heal people, and hears of a famous physician in Persia, in the city of Isfahan, Ibn Sinna, and decides to travel there in the company of a caravan of Jewish migrants. He becomes a student in Isfahan were rich in his ruled by a self-indulgent Shah who (Olivier Martinez) experiences an uprising against him. Plenty of drama, plenty of action – and a romance where the young would-be physician encounters the attractive Rebecca who is betrothed to an elderly man but…
While the title says The Physician, there are three candidates for the role of physician. At first, it is the Barber, the rough and ready type travelling England, cutting people’s hair, advocating medicines, involved in some kinds of surgery. He is called The Barber and is played with the bumptious energy by Stellan Skarsgaard. The second candidate is the young man, played by British actor Tom Payne, who has a skill for healing, a desire for healing, who goes on his travels, becomes an apprentice, and eventually a master physician. The third candidate is Ibn Sinna himself, known in the Western world and in the history of philosophy as Avicenna. He is what is later called a “Renaissance man”, interested in medicine, anatomy, physiology, as well as the deeper philosophical questions. He is played with strong gravitas by Ben Kingsley.
The film is a celebration of knowledge and the acquiring of knowledge. It pays homage to the Muslim philosophers like Averroes and Avicenna who developed philosophical questioning as well as practical applications. One feature of this story is that the three major religions in Isfahan, Muslims, Jews and some Christians, feel that it is against their faith to conduct autopsies. The young student disobeys his master and investigates the inner workings of the human body – to the fascination of his master, and with a practical application for surgery when the Shah himself suffers from “side sickness”.
While the film has a great deal of spectacle, especially the troublesome travel through the desert and the huge desert storms, as well as some battle sequences at the end, the Seljuks rising against the Shah in Isfahan and doing battle (with some sequences in the Madrassa with an imam rousing students to a kind of fundamentalist faith and sense of revolt).
But, the film is mainly drama, the odyssey of the young man, Rob Cole from England who, to the shame of his faith, decides to pretend to be Jewish so that he can travel to Isfahan and study.
There is a very pleasing sequence where Cole returns to England and The Barber comes to the market place in London looking for his usual customers only to be told that there is a hospital, with personal care and a devoted physician. (When one looks at the history of hospitals in the 18th and 19th centuries in England, there seems to have been a great reversion from these breakthroughs in the Middle Ages.)
UK, 2015, 103 minutes, Colour.
Ben Foster, Chris O' Dowd, Jessie Plemons, Lee Pace, Guillaume Canet, Dustin Hoffman.
Directed by Stephen Frears.
One of the biggest sports scandals in recent years was the unmasking of cycling champion, Lance Armstrong, who had built up extraordinary popularity over many years, and his successive wins in the Tour de France. He was a very public personality, was well-known because of his bout with cancer, his overcoming it, and his foundation with his charitable outreach.
It seems quite early to have a feature film on the Lance Armstrong story and the exposé. This is true because Academy Award-winning documentary maker, Alex Gibney, jas already produced the very telling film, The Armstrong Lie, going into the visual archives of Armstrong’s early life, marriage and family, cancer and treatment, as well as in detail of training and the champion rides, success despite some of the journalists being wary of his abilities. Gibney’s film also treats the exposé, or the evidence against Armstrong and his team, against Doctor Ferrari who supplied medications, and the finale where Armstrong confessed publicly on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
So, why a feature film?
Audiences respond to a documentary, listening to and looking at the facts, looking at the images, the body language, Armstrong and his denials. But, in a fiction based on fact, there can be some exploration of the character, interactions, the effect of enquiry and criticism, and some insight into the compulsions which drive a celebrity into cheating and denials.
The Program has the advantage of being directed by British director, Stephen Frears, who, for over 40 years, has made a wide range of films, tackling many subjects, serious and comic, a vast amount of experience in storytelling. In recent years he was well known for directing the true-life story, Philomena, and the impressive but less-seen story of the boxer facing the Supreme Court of the US, Mohammed Ali’s Greatest Fight.
This film also has the advantage of having Ben Foster playing the central role. Foster has built up a career of playing many unpleasant characters, unsympathetic characters, villains. Because the general public does not necessarily know Ben Foster, the actor is able to incarnate Armstrong, young, ambitious, experiencing the cancer, even exploiting incidents during his hospital time, training, defying the critics who claim that he was good at one day races but not a long competitive race.
The film then takes us behind-the-scenes, Armstrong’s ambitions and his visits to and discussions with Doctor Ferrari, his collaboration with his coach, building up a team who would support him during the races, especially Floyd Landis who later spoke out against him. Foster is also able to convey the inner intensity, more dramatically than might be possible in a documentary, the obsessive wanting to win at all costs, the consequent ruthlessness.
The film was based on a book by Irish journalist, David Walsh, who was suspicious of Armstrong early in the piece but was scoffed at by fellow journalists and editors alike – who has some ironic enjoyment at the end when Armstrong has to pay back money to The Times which had received because of a court case. Walsh is played by the always engaging Chris O’ Dowd.
There is a good supporting cast including Jesse Plemons as Floyd Landis and a cameo role for Dustin Hoffman as an adviser to an insurance company, also suspicious of Armstrong.
There are many sayings, even cliches, pride coming before a fall, how the mighty have fallen… And this film dramatically illustrates them.
Canada/Ireland, 2015, 118 minutes, Colour.
Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, Tom Mc Camus, Sean Bridgers, Wendy Crewson, William H.Macy.
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson.
Room is quite an ambiguous title. Audiences may be expecting The Room or A Room. But, with the simplicity of Room, it may indicate some spaciousness, room to move, or it may indicate lack of room, confinement. In the first part of the film, we discover just how confining Room actually is. It is one room. There are no windows to look out of, only a skylight.
We have read, over the last several years, stories of women being abducted by predatory men, virtually imprisoned in their house, disappearing from their relatives and families, confined as playthings or sex slaves for the men. Some of the women have escaped and have told their sad stories. This is one of them.
Brie Larson plays Joy, a comparatively young woman who lives in this single room with her young son, Jack, turning 5. While they have television, Jack has no real idea of the outside world, it is a fantasy, one with the images from television and apprehended by a little boy. He knows nothing outside the room and himself is quite joyful and, as a goes to bed, he says good night to every aspect of his room, his home. Sometimes Old Nick, as they call him, turns up with some food, some presents like toys, and spends the night with Joy and then goes off again.
This is a difficult film to review without indicating some of the plot developments. Most audiences will know that, eventually, mother and son do come out of the room, quite a dramatic experience for both, a relief for the mother, quite some bewilderment of the boy.
Joy’s parents have not known where she has been. Her mother, Joan Allen, tries her best to help her daughter and her grandson. Her husband, Joy’s father, has left home and lives a long way away, presumably unable to face what has happened. He is played by William H. Macy, appearing only in a few scenes but a very telling and disturbing performance. At home, Joy’s mother’s new partner tries his best with the boy, making some breakthroughs.
Clearly, not everything will go as everyone wants, including the audience hopes for Joy and Jack, which makes the latter part of the film quite tense, Joy having to deal with the trauma and coming back to real life, Jack catching up on life with other people.
Brie Larson is excellent in the role. And the performance by the young actor, Jacob Tremblay, is quite astounding, so convincing he is. This is an Irish-Canadian? coproduction which, inexplicably, is set in the United States. It is the work of the Irish director, Lenny Abrahamson, who has made some very striking films: some with comic touches, Adam and Paul, Garage, and some with more serious touches, What Richard Did, Frank. He has built up already a serious body of cinema work.
US, 2015, 128 minutes, Colour.
Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel Mc Adams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d' Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, Jamey Sheridan, Billy Crudup, Paul Guilfoyle, Len Cariou.
Directed by Thomas Mc Carthy.
For a fuller commentary, see SIGNIS Statement, Spotlight.
Spotlight is primarily a film about investigative journalism, the work of the Boston Globe in 2001. Memories of this kind of film go back to 1976 and the Watergate exposé in All the Presidents Men. At the same time as the release of Spotlight, there was a very powerful film on investigative journalism that is well worth seeing, Truth, about the NBC investigation of George W. Bush’s going into the National Guard to avoid service in Vietnam – showing the detail of investigation but also highlighting the need for consistent verification otherwise the investigation is not credible.
The Boston Globe’s investigation focused on sexual abuse, clergy and survivors. This means that it is a film of particular Catholic interest. Cardinal Sean O’ Malley, Archbishop of Boston and a member of the papal committee on sexual abuse, wrote a statement in October, acknowledging the realities of abuse in the church, acknowledging that the film treats an important subject. Again, see below.
There have been films on clerical sexual abuse since 1990, quite a number, documentaries and feature films. They have been serving as a contribution to an examination of conscience by the church, an acknowledgement of realities for victims and survivors, a critique of the behaviour of church authorities, the need for a recognition of sinfulness in the church. And, in their ways, they have contributed to a better, even wiser, understanding.
Reviews of Spotlight have been very favourable. The screenplay, co-written by Josh Singer and the director, Thomas Mc Carthy, is carefully and strongly written. Performances are quite powerful. The film keeps audience interest. The four journalists in the Spotlight investigative team are played by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel Mc Adams, Brian d’Arcy James. At one stage it emerges that each of the four was Catholic educated but no longer practising, some “pissed off” at the church and one of them, after reading the documents, saying that he had hoped to return to the church, but now… There is of course, a sad emotional impact, audiences identifying with the journalists in their quest, disgust at the stories that are revealed, compassion for those who have suffered.
One of the difficulties about the film is its setting in 2001. Because the film is focused on Boston and the Spotlight team who undertake the investigation, the film gives an impression, a kind of American triumphalism, that it was the Boston Globe which was the first to do this kind of investigation. In many ways, the American church was slow off the mark in acting (admitted by the journalists in the film), while investigations were under way, led by Canada, and making progress in such countries as the UK, Ireland, Australia, in the first half of the 1990s. Investigations in European countries came later. A government enquiry in Ireland was to be inaugurated not so many years after the work of the Boston Globe. In Australia, the documents Towards Healing (and the Melbourne Response) were launched at the end of 1996.
It is interesting to note that there is little or no reference to the police and their enquiries into complaints about sexual abuse. There is no discussion of reporting to the police. Investigations preceded the Spotlight investigations because Father Geoghan was arrested the same month as the first article appeared in the Boston Globe.
Reference is made in the screenplay of Spotlight to material being sent to the paper as early as 1993 and then in 1996 but the paper did not follow through at the time. The Boston story, according to the film, went into action with the appointment of the new editor, Marty Baron, who had noticed a column about offender Father John Geoghan and suggested to his team that it needed following up, asking about knowledge by the hierarchy, including Cardinal Bernard Law, and an investigation that would expose any systematic faults, rather than an attack on individual church hierarchy.
There had been a film, Our Fathers, 2005, where there was a focus on Boston victims of abuse, their telling their stories, the work of lawyers, encounters of some of the victims with the perpetrators, and meetings with Cardinal Law who was played by Christopher Plummer. Spotlight has very few images of priests themselves, concentrating on interviews with the survivors with their harrowing stories. There is a brief prologue in 1976, complaints against Father Geoghan, the child, parents, and a reassuring priest helping the family, suggestions that information was given to the hierarchy but not followed on up, highlighting the transfer of offending priests from one parish to another.
In fact, the main priest in this film is Cardinal Law himself, receiving Marty Baron in his house, offering to collaborate with the media, Baron assuring him of the independence of the press, and the Cardinal giving him a gift of the Catholic Catechism. He is also related glimpsed as a Catholic Charities function. But, there is a great deal of talk about him, what he knew and what he didn’t know about abusive priests, the considerable number, his working in-house on cases, working with various lawyers for settlements and their keeping all this information confidential. The documents were sealed and it is only when the Boston Globe intervenes that a judge allows them to be released. A letter written by one of the auxiliary bishops of Boston years earlier, maintaining secrecy and confidentiality, becomes part of the screenplay.
There is one priest in the film, Father Richard Paquin, who lives with his sister in retirement, interviewed by a journalist – who admits to her the truth of his experience with the boys but emphasises several times that he got no gratification from the experiences. One of the journalists discovers to his horror that his house is not very far from one of the houses designated for treatment of priests. At the end he is seen delivering a big number of papers with the article at this house.
As has been mentioned, more vivid pictures of the priests emerge from the interviews with the survivors, with the head of the organisation, SNAP (Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests), Paul Saviano who had sent material to the paper in 1996 and felt frustrated at their lack of action. Listening to his description of his own experiences, his age, the grooming, the process of trust, leading to the physical, sexual and psychological abuse, makes the point very strongly. An interview with an awkward man, groomed by Father Shanley who was later arrested, highlights once again grooming, the use of pornography, nudity and sexual gratification for a young boy who is discovering his homosexual orientation. A third man, Patrick, explains the process of the priest singling him out, the affirmation felt, and then the touch and his freezing, and the abuse. The drug scars in his arm are quite evident.
The sequences of interviews are possibly stronger in their impact, the audience listening to the words and seeing the body language of the survivors, than if there were visuals of the abuse.
The work of the investigative team is meticulous, painstakingly followed through over a very long period, checking sources, persuading interviewees to speak and be recorded, checking clips from the vast archives of Globe, trolleys and folders of them, searching in the Catholic Directories of these years and discovering so many priests listed as sick or absent or on leave. The journalists were able to make a list of 87 clergy through this method of discovery. (In 2011, Cardinal O’Malley? made public the release of a list of offending clergy in Boston, their names, 159 of them.) Emotionally, the audience is invited to identify with the journalists. The targets of their research tend to be seen as villains, especially when the verification is clinched, the ‘Gotcha’ moments.
In the film, there are many sequences where the journalists make contact with lawyers handling victims cases, knowing that there was a great deal of confidentiality, but continually checking with them as more information became available. It is one of the Catholic lawyers who had been defending the Church’s silence who is finally overwhelmed by what has been uncovered and, emotionally reluctant, does indicate the truth about the list of abusive priests.
One of the experts over many decades is the former priest, Richard Sipe, who has written extensively on these issues. His book becomes one of the sources for information and for the journalists to try to understand the mentality of the abusers, issues of infantile sexuality, sexual orientation, issues of clerical celibacy. He becomes a character in the film, voiced by actor Richard Jenkins, in a number of phone interviews.
Cardinal Law was transferred to Rome at the end of 2002. The film also lists a number of places and countries where abuse has taken place. In 2002, the American Catholic Bishops Conference affirmed a policy of zero tolerance in abuse cases.
STAR WARS, THE FORCE AWAKENS
US, 2015, 135 minutes, Colour.
Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Lupita Nyong'o, Andy Serkis, Domnhall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Max von Sydow, Peter Mayhew, Simon Pegg, Harriet Walter, Warwick Davis.
Directed by J.J.Abrams.
A review is the least necessary reference for filmgoers – but rather, something to check after audiences see the film.
For those familiar with the films, especially the first trilogy and its opening, there is a frisson of emotion and delight as we see the familiar words about long ago in a faraway galaxy and the introduction to this film makes its climb from bottom screen upwards towards outer space and John Williams’or familiar score begins its rousing cords and melody.
Most fans were not great enthusiasts for the second trilogy and most have been reassured that the series is back on track. Since there are a great many parallels to Episode IV, there is the comfort of familiarity and memory making connections – although some diehards have been dissatisfied and or upset that there are too many similarities.
We are introduced to a character, a pilot, somewhat in the vein of Han Solo, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). We find him in deep discussion with a wise elder, Max von Sydow channelling the style of Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan? Kenobi, and we learn that Luke Skywalker has disappeared. This time there is a new droid, B-88 (though, rest assured that later in the film we will find 3-CPIO and R2-D2). But, no sooner than we are wondering about battles, the Storm troopers invade, massacring inhabitants, capturing Poe Dameron but not his droid. One of the storm troopers is upset at the killing, takes off his helmet, has no wish to be part of this killing, and helps free and then takes off with Poe Dameron and the droid who has the information as to Luke’s whereabouts.
One of the things about this film is that its hero, Finn (John Boyega) and the more than feisty heroine, Rey (Daisy Ridley who is just right) are ordinary citizens, not the royalty of Luke and Leia (though some wonder). No mention is made of it, anti-racism without comment, but Finn is black (the British actor using an American accent).
On the scavenger planet, where Poe and Finn crash land, Finn survives and it is there that he comes across Rey who has recovered the Droid. Well that leads to all kinds of adventures, especially an escape in an old starship which is captured by a bigger starship managed by – yes, Han Solo and Chewbacca. Harrison Ford is in good form as Han Solo (and a distraction indicates that, even though he is moving towards his mid-70s, there still could be an Indiana Jones adventure for him). Fans of Chewbacca will be glad of the considerable attention given to him.
The enemy is not exactly the Evil Empire, but The First Order, overseen by an evil Supreme Leader (Andy Seriks) who relies on General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson) and his military command as well as his disciple,Kilo Ren ((Adam Driver).
We are rather glad when, eventually, we find that Poe Dameron is not dead, that Princess Leia is now a general (and a substantial role for Carrie Fisher 30 years on). But, where is Luke, and how to get the final information as to his whereabouts in the galaxy?
This leads to a visit to a canteen, reminiscent of those in the old films with their bizarre characters, but this time the female equivalent of Yoda, Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o of 12 Years a Slave). While Finn is the hero, it is Rey was given the laser sword and is meant to reawaken the force within her. So, there are some good adventures as they go to another planet where a vast weapon, absorbing energy from the sun, is being refuelled to destroy the Resistance.
There are fights, a shock to the system and audience sensibilities it if they have not heard about the twist, and a laser sword fight, once again, Rey versus the inheritor of Darth Vadern’s heritage and the Dark side, Kilo Ren.
Obviously, there must be a new trilogy – and the final sequence, Rey searching for Luke and a glimpse of Luke means that we can look forward to the next film which is already in production, in mid-2017.
UK, 2015, 106 minutes,Colour.
Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne- Marie Duff, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Wishaw, Geoff Bell, Natalie Press, Samuel West, Finbar Lynch, Meryl Streep.
Directed by Sarah Gavron.
One of the surprises of Suffragette is the listing before the final credits of the dates when and where women received the vote, significantly New Zealand in 1893, Australia in 1902, with Mrs Pankhurst and her suffragette movement in the second decade of the 20th century – and then information about Britain in 1928, France in 1944 and, very surprisingly, Switzerland and the vote for women as late as 1971.
This film is very much a women’s film, a female director, Sarah Gavron(Brick Lane), writer Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady) and a strong female cast led by Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Anne- Marie Duff, with a strong cameo by Meryl Streep as Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst. There are some interesting performances by men as well, Brendan Gleeson as the chief of police, suspicious of the women, upholding the law, with Ben Whishaw as Carey Mulligan’s husband proving to be chauvinist in his attitudes towards his wife, and Geoff Bell as the unscrupulous manager of the Bethnal Green laundry.
The film focuses on a small group of women, symbolising the whole suffragette movement. At its centre is Maud Watts, Carey Mulligan, a young woman who has worked in the laundry since she was a child, seeing her mother die at work, now married, her husband also working in the laundry, and with a young son, living in a working class street in East London. She encounters a member of the movement, Violet, Anne-Marie? Duff, strong but frail, whom Maud helps, especially gaining a job for her daughter who is sexually harassed by the manager of the laundry. When her son is ill, she goes to the local pharmacist, Edith, Helena Bonham Carter, whose father prevented her from becoming a doctor but who are still skilled at helping people. Both women are heavily involved in the suffragette movement, Edith having gone to prison several times (but supported strongly by her husband).
Through unforeseen circumstances, Maud finds herself delivering a speech in the House of Commons, members of parliament led by Lloyd George listening to the experiences of women. The audience listens attentively, as do the parliamentarians, when Maude outlines the hard life that she has led, the hard work, the family struggle, the lower pay…
As Maude becomes more involved with the suffragettes, she is present at a rousing speech given by Mrs Pankhurst, is impressed, becomes committed, cannot agree with her husband and finds that she is ousted from her own home, having to live in an old church. One of the most moving and emotional scenes concerns Sonny deciding that they should give up their son for adoption.
The suffragette movement was quite vigorous, not just with protests (with police exercising brutality to put the women down, arresting them, imprisoning them) but with acts of sabotage, ranging from throwing stones in shop windows in Regent Street to a demonstration that leads to a fatality at the race track in the presence of King George V.
With such commitment and energy, audiences may be expecting the film to show that the suffragettes won their voting rights and other rights immediately – but this is not the case, many years before success.
The film is rousing, focuses on a small group who represent the whole movement. And, of course, it reminds us of causes and protests in the present – and our wondering how they will be represented in 100 years time.
Italy/UK, 2015, 124 minutes, Colour.
Michael Caine, Hartley Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Alexander Mc Queen, Paloma Faith, Ed Stoppard.
Directed by Paolo Sorrentino.
Youth won an award for the European film of the year and Michael Caine as best actor and life achievement.
In seeing that Michael Caine is the star of the film and is supported by Hartley Keitel, prospective audiences might be wondering about the title, the blunt statement of youth. As might be expected, Youth does not feature so explicitly but, rather, youth is a time in memory, in nostalgia, in happiness, in regrets.
This is a film by Italian director Paolo Sorrentino who made a breakthrough in Italian Cinema at the beginning of the century, then developed an international reputation, especially with Il Divo, portrait of the Italian politician,. He then made a film in English, This is The Place, with Sean Penn and Frances McDormand?, an interesting if sometimes bizarre portrait of a rock singer searching for his family and background in the United States. Then he won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film in 2012 for The Great Beauty. This was quite an extraordinary film about an ageing Italian, Italian society, a background of decadence, of affluence, of ecclesiastical patronage, something of a narrative, something of an essay, something of a poeml on about Italian life. Many noticed reminiscences of the work of Federico Fellini, especially seeing this film as an update, so to speak, of La Dolce Vita.
The influence of Fellini comes to mind also with Youth. This time it is with Fellini’s 8 ½, the story of an artist in a resort, reflecting on his life, his relationships – amid some of Fellini-like grotesques at a resort with its baths.
This time the resort is in the mountains of Switzerland, beautiful locations, a haven for affluent customers, hotel luxury rooms, dining, constant masseuses according to a health program, the baths, walks in the countryside. There is a wide range of clients, ordinary people, a Hollywood star, a large sports celebrity, Miss Universe…
The main focus is on Fred, Michael Caine, a retired composer and conductor, there for his health. He is pursued by an emissary from Queen Elizabeth with the request that he come to conduct a performance of his Simple Songs for herself and the Duke of Edinburgh and to have him to receive a knighthood. He is strongly against the idea, the songs only for himself and for his wife, who sang them. Also with him is his assistant, his daughter Lena, Rachel Weisz, who works with her father but has bad memories of his neglect in her childhood, the treatment of her mother, and she has several scenes where she upbraids him. At this time, she is being dumped by her husband for a younger woman, a pop star, Paloma Faith. Her husband is the son of Fred’s best friend, Michael, Harvey Keitel, who is also at the resort, this time with some ambitions, his final film and discussions with his collaborative team of five, a film that would be his life’s testament. Fred is over 80, Michael almost 80.
Also at the resort is a Hollywood star, Jimmy, played by Paul Dano, relaxing and having treatment as he thinks over his interpretation of his next film role. As with the audience, he is an observer of what goes on at the resort and of the characters.
There is a lot of talk, a lot of walking, a lot of reminiscing, Fred thinking about a girl who he was in love with and Michael’s behaviour with her, as well as reflection on his wife and her descent into dementia.
And as if this was not enough old people reflecting on youth, suddenly Jane Fonda appears in a show-stopping performance as a ravaged ageing actress who starred in Michael’s films, won awards, but has become disillusioned with him, thinks his recent films rubbish, refuses to act in his current film, is going into television and moves into a tirade against him and his pretensions. This is quite a performance with quite a lot to say about movie stars, careers and age.
There is a salvation moment for Fred, a repeat of the invitation from the Queen – and some kind of peace for Fred, his daughter, the memory of his wife, his music.
Some people have described some of Sorrentino’s films as cinema poems – but another reviewer, taking a cue from the music theme, suggests that we might consider them, and Youth, as cinema symphonies.