SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS JULY 2009
BLOOD: LAST OF THE VAMPIRES
CHILDREN OF THE SILK ROAD
ICE AGE 3
LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT
LAST THAKUR, The
MY SISTER'S KEEPER
RUDO & CURSI
BLOOD: THE LAST VAMPIRES
(France, 2009, d. Chris Nahon)
At only 88 minutes, this is a brisk, very brisk, action drama that has better production values than many and, in fact, is more interesting and entertaining than many. Even then, it is a variation on horror themes for the fans of graphic novels. Fans who wanted more simplistic characters and action have expressed disappointment because of its qualities.
It is an international collaboration, basically French, filmed in Argentina, Japan and the US, with a Korean actress as the lead, with an American companion (as the film is set in Japan in 1971 with a US base there for Vietnam action), a glamorous Japanese demonic villain and a supporting cast of British character actors. There is martial arts action but more along the Crouching Tiger variety from action choreographer, Corey Yuen, there are flashbacks to old Japan with a mythology of demons controlling the world, then a modern group, The Council, with Liam Cunningham, Michael Byrne and JJ field, who look like men in black who are using the last vampire warrior to destroy the literal mother of all demons, Onigen.
The acting of the principals is not one of the great features of the film but we accept the conventions of the genre and sit back and enjoy the stylish production values and the action.
CHILDREN OF THE SILK ROAD
(Australia/China, 2008, d. Roger Spottiswoode)
A worthy subject and a worthy film but one which does not quite have the spark of inspiration.
It is set in China in 1937-1938, at the time of the Japanese invasion. Opening in the relative calm of Shanghai, it moves to Nanjing at the time of the siege (which was included in the German film, John Rabe, and Chen Kaige's Forever Enthralled). Based on the life of British Journalist, George Hogg, it shows his daring at going to the beleaguered city, taking photographs of the atrocities and falling foul of the Japanese authorities. However, he is saved by resistance fighters and, ultimately, asked to go to an orphanage to take care of the boys there. He does and bonds with them, learning the language after their initial suspicions.
When the Japanese advance, he has the idea for them to migrate to a distant town at the edge of the Gobi desert to be safe. This entails a gruelling three months walk, in winter, over snow-covered mountains.
Hogg is played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers as a young, restless journalist who finds a more humane perspective for his life. Rhada Mitchell is a tough American doctor. Chow Yun- Fat is a Communist Resistance leader who rescues Hogg and supports him. Michelle Yeoh is a woman who trades goods in the town and is also supportive of the orphanage.
Often very striking to look at, the film is a memoir of a dangerous period for China, a tribute to a good man but it comes across as lower-key than intended.
(UK, 2009, d. Jake West)
The makers of Doghouse may well have hoped that their comic horror thriller could become something of a cult film. It might. When compared with Lesbian Vampire Killers (and there are some plot similarities), there is no comparison - Doghouse wins completely.
While the basic plot is in no way original (one suspects that the makers saw Edgar Wright's Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz and wondered how they could combine the basic ideas – which they have: mayhem in an isolated village and the living dead), there are all kinds of ingredients.
There is the government experimentation for military purposes (the virus attacks all women who then kill all the men). Serious but parody. There is the unPC talk by Danny Dyer (satirising many Danny Dyer roles) and the chauvenism ('neanderthal misogynist' as a friend describes him) that climaxes the film with the women having the last laugh. Comic but parody. There is the ordinariness of the blokes who go off for a weekend in the country to support their friend who is being divorced (and the marriage and friendship messes they themselves are making). The situation is initially credible... what would you do if the quiet village came alive with the living dead? There is the reference to fanboys, their comics, the nerdish encyclopedic knowledge of comic-book and movie detail and trivia. That's some homage to The Evil Dead.
Partly funny, partly blokish, partly helpful and unhelpful responses to desperate situations – and some touches of corny horror.
EVERLASTING MOMENTS (MARIA LARSSON'S EVERLASTING MOMENTS/ MARIA LARSSONS EVIGA OGENBLICK)
(Sweden, 2008, d. Jan Troell)
This is the kind of fine film that is described these days as classical. Jan Troell is now in his late 70s. His international peak came in the first part of the 1970s with his Oscar-nominated epic, The Emigrants, which was followed by The New Land and Zandy's Bride. Everlasting Moments was Sweden's nomination for the 2008 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and was in the final ten nominations.
Troell serves as a cameraman on this films, so the subject, both Sweden itself and photography in the early 20th century must have appealed to him.
This is quite a melancholic film. The subject is a working class girl,who has worked as a maid, Maria (a beautifully dignified performance from Maria Heiskanen). She wins a camera in a competition and her young man wants to have it. She jokes that he can have it only if they marry. They do. She forgets about the camera until many years (and children) later.
Marriage is difficult and her husband (Mikael Persbrandt), a big and muscular man at the docks and other jobs, is also a drinker and, later, a womaniser (and one of those types who ingnores all personal responsibility and becomes suspicious of his wife's friendships). Maria would like to leave him but there is the poverty, the care of the children and her elderly father reminding her that what God has joined no one can tear asunder.
Discovering the camera again, she finds that she has a talent and an eye for photographs. Needless to say, her husband disapproves. However, she is encouraged by the gentleman who owns a camera shop (Jesper Christensen). They become good friends and she finds support in this friendship.
More pregnancies, World War I lingering over the years, her husband in military service, his return and his continued brutality...
The period, the poverty, the ethos of the times are all beautifully evoked, the colour palette rather sepia-imbued like the photographs of the time, the poses and framing like those photos as well.
The plot cannot help but be sad but for a patient and discerning audience, Everlasting Moments is well worth seeing.
(US, 2009, d. Matt Aselton)
Does a film have to have a point? If it does, then demanding audiences might wonder what Gigantic was really about, what was its point? On the other hand, if a film can just be and audiences can take it as it is, the relaxed audience can just go with the flow of Gigantic. If the screenplay did mention anything about the title, I must have missed it. Maybe it's just the irony that the film is not gigantic. The director says that he is interested in where reality and absurdity cross. So, there you are.
This is the story of Brian Weathersby, a bed and mattress salesman, played by the rather unsmiling Paul Dano (the silent teenager in Little Miss Sunshine and Daniel Day Lewis's nemesis in There Will be Blood). His life ambition (since the age of eight) has been to adopt a Chinese baby, so part of the film is about that and how it is achieved. He sells a bed to a bumptiously shrewd businessman, played well by John Goodman, who has a willow-the-wisp daughter, Happy (for Harriet), played by Zooey Deschanel. Brian's relationship with Happy and her father's dependence on him is another strand. There are his workmates. There is his family, an ageing patriarch who lives back in the days of doormen for apartment buildings and secretaries who made appointments for managers (Edward Asner) and his wife, Jane Alexander. There are two older brothers. And lurking throughout the film until an untimely and unresolved encounter is a workman in a hard hat who assaults Brian. So, there you are again.
It is all well done and not without interest and entertainment, asking to be accepted just because it is there rather than its proposing to do something or convey a message. Seems as though the eccentricities of human nature are enough.
(US, 2009, d. Todd Phillips).
The title probably indicates whether you want to see this film or not. It promises to deal with drinking, the after-effects – and not everyone finds jokes about drunkenness funny. This is compounded by the fact that the hangover follows a raucous, very raucous, bachelor party in Las Vegas.
The Hangover presents a few challenges to the reviewer. On the one hand, the four central characters indulge in the American tradition of the bachelor party and its letting down of all guards and they show an alarming immaturity in their behaviour with the screenplay wanting to let them off as much as possible. Many crass sequences and, especially, language.
On the other hand, it is often funnier than one might expect. In fact, despite their crassness, the four men are more sympathetic than usual (and we don't see many details of their wild behaviour until a series of photos during the final credits). And, in fact, the crassness is not as crass as it usually is in this kind of film (like the 1980s Bachelor Party or Todd Phillips' buddy film, Old School). One could say that there is a pleasanter context for the crassness which lightens it and highlights the humour rather than the vulgarity.
The plot has some mad twists and turns, including a tiger in the bathroom (with the tiger belonging to Mike Tyson who makes a cameo appearance), a baby in the refrigerator and a naked Chinese gangster in the boot of a car.
Justin Bartha is the bridegroom who spends a lot of the film missing. His searching buddies include Bradley Cooper as the leader of the troop, Ed Helms as a straight-laced dentist with a harridan of a girlfriend who controls him and is always ringing up – and who has an extraordinary suppressed sub-conscious which breaks out at a wedding chapel with Heather Graham – and stand-up comedian Zach Galifianakis, who initially seems so crass but whose dumbness leads to quite some humour and even likeableness.
Not a must see but, for those who enjoy some broad humour, better than might have been expected. The Hangover 2 is in preparation!
(Ireland, 2008, d. Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy)
Words that come to mind in association with watching Helen are 'contemplative', 'evocative', 'reflective' – and anomalous. It is anomalous because the initial subject is the abduction of a young woman, her disappearance, the police search and investigation and the preparation for a reconstruction of the disappearance for the media. But, really, the film is not about that at all. The abduction is the occasion for a portrait of Helen.
Helen is the fellow student who is picked for the re-enactment. She is just 18, an orphan who knows nothing about her parents, seems more passive than active, a very emotionally needy girl. The prospect of the end of school, exams, the re-enactment have an influence on how she acts – she also works as a maid in a hotel – but it is the attention, the empathy she tries to feel for the missing girl, meeting her parents, wanting the girl's boyfriend to love her that stir some emotions in her. She says that she has never heard anyone say that they love her. There is also the process of looking at the documents about her past and her parents.
But, this kind of noting the themes and action do not help to describe the effect of Helen. It is the visual style and cinematic art that make it different. The film opens with slow, long, tracking shots of a group in the woods and continues with this style throughout. While there are a number of medium shots and some rare close-ups, so much of the film is in this slow distant camera mode. So often, the frame of the screen acts like a proscenium and the action takes place at some distance as if the audience were in a live theatre. This is why the film is evocative and calls for reflection on what is going on as much as an emotional response.
ICE AGE 3: DAWN OF THE DINOSAURS
(US, 2009, d. Carlos Saldanha and Michael Thurmeier)
The first three minutes of the film, with Scrat, as always, searching for a nut, encountering a femme fatale, Scratte, who has her own ideas as to who should take possession of the nut, has been used for some months as a trailer for Ice Age 3. It is very amusing and puts everyone in a favourable frame of mind to enjoy the film.
There is also a ready-made audience because of the popularity of the first two films – though it is a bit of a shock to realise that Ice Age came out in 2002. However, this one has only a slight plot and spends more time on slapstick comedy which means that it is geared much more towards younger audiences (quite young) rather than making sure that adults enjoy it as well. That said, it is a pleasant continuation of life in the prehistoric world which, on the whole, seems tranquil enough. Once again mammoth Manny is the leader (voiced by Ray Romano) but Ellie (Queen Latifah), his wife is pregnant. Tiger Diego (Denis Leary) finds his powers ebbing and thinks that he should go off on his own. The crzay possums (Seann William Scott and Josh Peck) are just as mischievous as always. But, a lot of attention is on zany sloth Sid (John Leguizamo) who wants to join in the mammoth's new baby life and finds three dinosaur eggs under the ice and decides to mother them.
This is more like the comic happenings in old style cartoons, Looney Tunes (especially for poor old Scrat and his battle of the sexes with Scratte, both literally going nuts!
Plot-wise, the adventure happens when mother dinosaur takes her babies and Sid and the tribe go to rescue Sid. They find an oddball one-eyed weasel with a patch and a British accent (Simon Pegg) who leads the expedition and whose mission is to confront the giant dinosaur, Rudy.
So, there you are: familiar characters, funny voices, attractive landscapes, slapstick chases, fights and accidents – and in 3D. A bit milder than before but it won't dent the happy reputation of the Ice Age ensemble!
THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT
(US, 2009, d. Dennis Iliadis)
The question is 'how much is too much?'.
In 1972, new director, Wes Craven, made a huge impact with the small-budget horror drama, The Last House on the Left. Heavily cut in some countries, it was banned in others, especially because of a graphic rape sequence. Craven had based his screenplay on the Ingmar Bergman classic, The Virgin Spring. Audiences and censors were not used to this kind of overt treatment of violence, especially sexual violence. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was to follow in 1974 and the 1970s and 1980s saw what the Festival of Light and others labelled 'video nasties'. Craven's intention was to portray the violence as repugnant and to set it in a 'realistic' context that audiences could identify with, not as participating in the violence but to empathise with the victim and be repelled by it.
Craven certainly raised an issue that is still with us despite the almost forty years of more open depictions of violence.
It is the case with this modern version of The Last House on the Left which has Craven as one of its producers. The budget is bigger. The cast is better known. The technical craft is far more polished than in the original. Greek director, Dennis Iliadis, has a flair for the dramatic and melodramatic.
The basic plot is the same: a young woman is raped by a ruthless escaped criminal and her parents wreak vengeance on him and his gang. And, the question is still the same, how much is too much? The rape sequence is not entirely unfamiliar from similar films and the same with the vengeance.
It is clear that what one brings to a film is what one gets out of it. Perverse prurience concerning sexuality or violence will be satisfied no matter what. Sensitivity may find the depiction too much. This time the film-makers have offered the violence in a realistic context (except for the final sequence of vengeance which seems too much, almost a bad violence joke or spoof), especially the graphic rape, and most audiences would accept this without liking it or even finding it watchable. This is what would happen in a similar real life situation and this is how people feel and react. However, from the opening with the escape of the criminal from police custody and the brutal slaying of the police, there is the creation of a sadistic atmosphere which carries over to the rest of the film which raises a suspicion that the makers are playing on this sadism unhealthily despite their reasonable intentions about realism. This is a first view reaction to the film. A closer study of it might confirm this or indicate that it was a suspicion that the film does not support. But, who is going to see the film for a second time?
THE LAST THAKUR
(Bangladesh/UK, 2008, d. Sadik Ahmed)
A rather serious and solemn story of life in a village in rural Bangladesh. A collaboration between Bangladeshi film-makers and British backing, this revenge tale takes place over one day, the day after an election in which the village leader, The Chairman, has been returned to power.
In the early morning as the men go to work, especially on building sites, a Hindu landowner surveys his property and the prospect of losing it as people who have bought the land cannot pay. He ruminates with his blind friend. In the meantime, The Chairman is hostile to , the last Thakur of the village.
In the meantime, a young boy offers a voiceover description of the characters and the political and personal tangles.
Later in the day, a younger man with a rifle comes to the village. He is looking for the man who raped his mother and is his father. He has initials – which apply both to and to The Chairman (who is hostile to his own son and advises him not to refer to him as father in public),
The tension mounts as the man with a gun confronts the men – and we know that it will end in violence and bloodshed.
The film is photographed beautifully on location, uses the landscapes and the old buildings to dramatic effect. A stylised tale that communicates the atmosphere of a different world in Asia's sub-continent.
MY SISTER'S KEEPER
(US, 2009, d. Nick Cassavetes)
This family drama takes on some very serious themes. It is based on a novel and its approach is very emotional compared with how these themes might be treated in a documentary. Press notes and quotes state that the film avoids any sentimental treatment but many non-American audiences will beg to differ. This does not mean that US dramas cannot be made like this one – after all, it is part of the culture. Less emotionally-oriented reviewers refuse to make these allowances and are severe with accusations of 'emotional manipulation'. (One London reviewer, female in her 30s reviewer, ended with 'a ghoulishly glossy weepie indulgence that'll have cheap-sentiment junkies wallowing like happy hippos in a mud spa'.)
This means that we have a way of gauging whether we want to see this kind of film or not. My guess is that many 'ordinary' audiences will find the film disturbing, moving and challenging.
We are told immediately by 11 year old Anna (played by that fine child actor, Abigail Breslin) that she was conceived in vitro so that her blood, marrow and organs would be compatible with her older (by three years) sister, Kate (Sofia Vassillieva) who has terminal illnesses and has been kept alive by the donations of her young sister and the relentless determination of her mother. In the background is an older son who suffered from dyslexia when he was young but, like Anna, is usually relegated to support for Kate by their mother. Their aunt stays with the family. The father provides a solid background quietly backing his wife.
The crisis of the film, which simply presents the in vitro situation of Anna and her being available for Kate, is that Anna wants to stop giving. She wants a life of her own. She approaches a lawyer to take her case to a judge so that she has medical independence from her parents.
Early in the film, each character is introduced and speaks their particular point of view, so we have the complexity of the issues, compassion for Kate and a genuine concern for how much Anna has been hospitalises since she was born and what her life prospects are. Most audiences, while acknowledging the strength of maternal love, will baulk at Sara Fitzgerald's single-mindedness. Cameron Diaz gives a completely credible performance. Jason Patric is the quieter father. Alec Baldwin is the lawyer and Joan Cusack is particularly good as the judge in the case.
(Norway, 2008, d. Bent Hamer)
Watching O'Horten is quite an agreeable experience. We are taken to Sweden in the winter season – and the autumn of the life of rail engineer and train driver, Odd Horten. In fact, the film is really a warm portrait of this man as he comes to the end of his career on the trains and begins his retirement. Baard Owe looks and acts the part perfectly.
The film is really a series of episodes which are not really essential to the narrative drive of the film. Each is, in its own way, entertaining, fragments of this portrait of Odd. A silent and retiring man, we see him driving the train, a trbitute from his fellow-workers, being unable to get into a building for further celebration and going up the fire escape and through an apartment only to find a little boy who shows him his toys and wants him to stay until he goes to sleep. The Odd nods off and has to surreptitiously get out of the apartment. It's that kind of film.
He goes to a bar regularly for a drink, meets the widow of his tobacconist, meets a man (via some funny sequences of his visiting an airport and being detained) who wants to buy his boat. A kind man, he picks up a man lying in the street and takes him home where he learns he has been a diplomat in Africa and has a wilder younger brother, an inventor. He also claims the gift of being able to drive a car blindfolded and yet see. This has an unexpected consequence and leads to the end of the film with Odd going to see his landlady and really settle into retirement.
Bent Hamer's films have been as diverse as Kitchen Stories and the Charles Bukowski story, Factotum, with Matt Dillon. He has a gently wry sense of humour as well as a sympathetic feel for ordinary people.
(US, 2009, d. Michael Mann)
There is a tradition of wildness, even of savagery, in US history. Wars, the west, mobs and crime... And these savage societies have been dramatised and explored in films for a hundred years. A question often arose as to whether the movies glamourised criminals and violence. This was a concern in the 1930s with Scarface, Little Caesar, Public Enemy and other films about Al Capone and contemporary gangsters. Towards the end of the 1940s, writers and studios realised that so many westerns had demonised the native American Indians and began to portray more sympathetic portraits. War in the movies has been patriotised as well as being made to serve as a critique of the conduct of some wars. In recent years a spate of films about the war in Iraq have not been popular box-office draws despite the topicality of the films. Which means, perhaps, that films reflect society more than influence it.
All this is a prelude to a review of Michael Mann's latest film. Mann has been interested in a range of topics for his films, from Manhunter (the first of the Hannibal Lecter films, with Brian Cox) to his biography of Muhammed Ali, Ali, with Will Smith, from The Last of the Mohicans to his thriller, Collateral. And, of course, Miami Vice.
Mann now gives his full attention to the Depression era, recreating it with impressive detail, even a gritty epic style with a solemn orchestrated score and those creations of the Depression, the bank-robbing petty gangsters. Both Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson appear in this film as does Chicago enforcer, Frank Nitti. But the focus is on Public Enemy Number One, the robber John Dillinger. He has been played by many actors like Lawrence Tierney, Ralph Meeker, Warren Oates, Mark Harmon in films about himself as well as appearing as a supporting character in films about Nelson and Floyd and about the exploits of the G- Men and Melvin Purvis. For film fans he is not an unknown personality.
Now he is Johnny Depp. Does having Depp play him glamourise him or his memory? Obviously, Dilligner had to have had charm to have influenced the people he did, to work on prison escapes with which the film opens as well as the robberies – and Depp displays the charm. However, Dillinger was also ruthless and a murderer and Depp is given plenty to do to reinforce this aspect of his character – as well as his being gunned down after seeing the 1934 gangster film with Clark Gable, Manhattan Melodrama.
On the side of the law is the famous G- Man, Melvin Purvis. He is played by Christian Bale in another square-jawed performance, struggling to use his skills with often poorly trained agents. The screenplay gives quite a deal of attention to the workings of the newly instituted Federal Bureau of Investigation with a strong cameo performance by Billy Crudup as J. Edgar Hoover, forcing his ideas on his agents and on government (though not well heard by a senate hearing). Stephen Lang stands out as a veteran and shrewd agent.
The other star is Marion Cotillard after her Oscar-winning performance as Edith Piaf. She is good as the coat-check girl who seems to bewitch Dillinger but who has a mind of her own, willing to be violently treated by the FBI interrogators and to go to prison for him.
Some of the distinguished cast have very little screen time, David Wenham, Stephen Dorff, Giovanni Ribisi, Lelee Sobieski.
What Mann has done with his sweeping style and his cast is to immerse his audience in the era and offer them different perspectives on these, at the time, popular criminal figures.
(China, 2009, d. John Woo)
Red Cliff is not really a war film – it is a warfare film.
The battle scenes in Braveheart are warfare. So is the opening half hour of Saving Private Ryan. But, they also contain political, social, family themes in the context of war. Red Cliff is battles. It is strategy and it is tactics. And, it is extraordinarily well done.
Hong Kong director John Woo was a standout director of gangster thrillers in the late 1980s and early 1990s (A Better Tomorrow, Hardboiled, The Killer). Then he went to Hollywood with mixed results, Face- Off being his outstanding film. He has tackled World War II in Windtalkers but, while interesting, it seemed to lack a spark. Now Woo has tackled spectacular Chinese history and warfare and succeeded. He has made it very difficult for the next directors of battle films. How will they top Red Cliff?
And, this comment is made, not on the two part, four hour film that is for Asian release but on his edited two and a half version for western audiences.
It needs to be said that audiences who find battle sequences difficult to watch will find this film very difficult at times. It is 'few holds barred' film-making, as if the audience is in the middle of the war and the battles, feeling almost in danger of being wounded or killed so close up it is.
The Battle of the Three Kingdoms stands as a classic in the minds of the Chinese people. The time is 209 AD. A novel from the 13th century made it vivid while romanticising it. Woo has used many features of the novel but has gone back to more accurate historical records for his film.
The basic plot is quite straightforward although westerners unfamiliar with the history need some time to absorb information and characters and gain a perspective for who is on the side of good and who is the oppressor. We see the prime Minister, Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) use the young emperor as a puppet to justify his ambitions to attack the kingdoms of the south so that he might become emperor himself. Kingdom leader Liu Bei uses his scholarly young strategist Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) to persuade his neighbour to join in the fight against Cao Cao. This depends on the decision of the army commander Zhou Yu (Tony Leung). They fight Cao Cao.
The rest of the film consists of the battles in great detail as well as pauses for reflection on strategies. The fighting scenes are quite extraordinary, sometimes overwhelming. However, as in any good storytelling, it is the final battle where Zhuge Liang uses his knowledge of weather to gain the advantage and the wife of the commander goes to Cao Cao to delay his attack that brings the action to a spectacular climax, including a naval battle with fire.
Cao Cao's troops numbered almost one million. This is a film with a cast of thousands and, through technical effects, a cast of millions. Woo has shown himself a master director, reinventing himself after his crime and action shows.
He proposes to make a film about 20th century Chinese history, of the historic year, 1949.
RUDO & CURSI
(Mexico, 2008, d. Carlos Cuaron)
Rudo and Cursi are nicknames for two half-brothers, Beto and Tato. Rudo is translated as 'tough' and Cursi as 'corny'.
This is the first production venture for a company started by three of Mexico's best-known international directors, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron. The film has been written and directed by Cuaron's younger brother Carlos and stars the young actors, Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, who made such an impression in Cuaron's Y Tu Mama Tambien and have gone on to successful careers. All this by way of background, but also a build-up to say that one might have expected far more from such talent.
This is a conventional enough story of two young men from the provinces who are stuck there with their dreams. By chance they are spotted by a talent scout and agent as they play football. Tato gets the nod and goes off to Mexico City where he becomes an instant star (for a short time). Beto is the manager of a banana plantation. But, he is also a top goalkeeper and soon he is invited to play professionally and is in line to break a record for goals saved.
So far, so expected. Actually, the next part is also expected. Gambling, women, drugs and collapse.
The dramatic question for the end is whether they will recover their abilities and play themselves out of trouble or whether they will continue their downward spiral. Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna have proven that they can dominate a film. They play well off each other. But, whether there is enough energy and stimulation in the film to draw the audience in, is debatable.
Perhaps the atmosphere of the soccer games is a plus for some audiences. And Guillermo Francelli is fine as the smooth-talking agent. Perhaps, with the credentials of those involved, we were expecting too much.
(US, 2009, d. Sean Anders)
Sometimes a film is reviewed just because it is there and someone might want to know something about it. Otherwise...
Sex Drive is one of those films.
The title says it all, though it does not specify that the drive is exhibited by some teenagers (who look under age), especially two friends who seem highly overcharged. The title also refers to their journey to meet a girl that one of them has linked up with on the internet. Sex is the goal.
The trouble is that for anyone over fourteen or fifteen, the humour, jokes, language and crassness is down there with the 'schoolboy', sniggery jokiness that thinks it has invented these jokes and that they are the funniest things you have ever seen and heard whereas...
There is really nothing to commend it. The Amish could well take exception to the leering way in which some of their members are raucously or lasciviously portrayed, although there is a moralising ending there. The only compensations should you happen to go to the film are some comic scenes with Seth Green as an Amish car repairer and a cleverly rude performance from James Marsden as the older brother with a secret. But, that is probably not compensation enough.
(Iran, 2008, d.Abbas Kierostami)
Shirin is another of Abbas Kierostami’s digital experiments. After a career, award-winning, of many contemplative Iranian films (Through the Olive Trees, The Wind Blows Where It Will), Kierostami made a number of experimental films including Ten, digitally photographed inside a car.
While this film has narrative credits, the sketchings of an Arabian Nights-style story of a princess and her suitors, of quest, love and death, the rest of the film focuses on the faces of over one hundred and ten Iranian stage and screen actresses who are responding to the film. It is almost eighty-five minutes of close-ups of the faces. (Some men are glimpsed in some of the shots but the focus is on the women.)
Niki Aremi, Leila Hatami are significant Iranian actresses and Juliet Binoche appears in a few sequences watching the film.
The film will be difficult for people more concerned about action and narrative. However, if one is prepared to simply watch the faces, the range of emotions, the body language, it is an interesting film of portraiture and study of response to film – from a women’s perspective.
(Mexico, 2008, d. Cary Fukunaga)
An impressive and disturbing film.
The writer-director, for his first feature film, lived amongst the migrants from Honduras and Mexico who would become the 'illegals' in the United States. He experienced their backgrounds, their hardships and poverty as well as the dangers that they encountered along the way from the Honduran border to the Mexican/US border, not only the patrols but also the vicious gangs who would rob and assault them (with even Mexicans throwing rocks at the passing Hondurans telling them they were not welcome in their country). He rode the roofs of the trains with them.
And that is what he wants to communicate to his audience – and he does so successfully.
Sin Nombre means 'Without a name' or 'Nameless'. This refers to the migrants. The gang members have more than one name, their personal name but, more valued, the nickname, code name, that they receive after going through some fierce initiation rites (being kicked brutally by the gang for 13 seconds to prove their toughness, killing a member from a rival gang and being tattooed, or really, branded.
The director immerses us in the life of the Mara, a powerful gang with tentacles as far as LA. Willy (real name) who is Caspar (code name) draws a 12 year old, Benito, who becomes Smiley, into the gang. It is his initiation we watch with alarm. In the meantime we see a young woman in Honduras who is persuaded to accompany her father and uncle to go to New Jersey.
At the border, the two stories come together. Willy has been dismayed by the actions of the leader of the gang and there is a confrontation which puts Willy on the run, pursued by gang members, especially Smiley who is ordered to kill Willy.
This part of the film takes the audience with the migrants, often on the top of huge goods trains lumbering through the often beautiful Mexican country side. Some of the long shot vistas of the trains are quite magnificent, especially with the crowd of people squatting on the roofs of the carriages.
The fate of many of the characters is grim. There are some touches of hope but prospects for most of them are dismal whether they die on the way to the US, are deported to Honduras from Mexico, are robbed or raped during their journey or are trapped in the vicious loyalty to the gang.
We have come to expect powerfully made films from Latin America about gangs and violence (City of God, City of Men, The Lower City). The characters are not only well drawn but they have a depth, even an interiority about them which means that the film makes a stronger impact emotionally. As well, there is much food for thought about the migration issues in the Americas. Sundance Festival winner for direction and for photography.
(US, 2009, d. Christine Jeffs)
Sunshine Cleaning has a lot of things going for it. It's offbeat. It's not a studio film. It's entertaining. It's funny and it's sad. It has a happy ending but not one that is all tied up neatly.
When a film begins with a man buying a gun and slipping bullets into it and shooting himself in the shop, you know you are in for something different. One doesn't normally give much (or any?) thought to the men and women who have to come in and clean up a crime scene (although we did see Harvey Keitel come in to remove the blood and brains in Pulp Fiction). Sunshine Cleaning is the optimistic name that Rose Lorkowski thinks up for the company she starts with her sister, Norah. And, while Norah finds it difficult (she is something of a slacker), Rose finds that it could lead to a calling in life.
Rose's life is a disappointment. Unmarried, with a precocious son, she works as a maid. She is also having an affair with her married schooldays' sweetheart. He does her one good turn (he is a police officer). He suggests the cleaning job.
The film could have gone in all directions but it keeps a satisfying ironic tone, does not revel in the uglier aspects of the work which it does not shy from, in fact offers the human side of murder and suicide tragedies. It also keeps a deep sense of humanity which means that most audiences will be caught up in the relationships of the two sisters and their relationship to their father.
The cast is excellent. In recent years, Amy Adams has proven herself quite versatile in her range of roles (princess in Enchanted, nun in Doubt) and becomes the solid centre here. Emily Blunt, who is also showing versatility (queen in The Young Victoria, assistant in The Devil Wears Prada), is the sister. Alan Arkin is the eccentric father. Steve Zahn is the police officer. And Clifton Collins Jr has a sympathetic and important role as a one-armed shop manager. And Jason Spevack is good as the misunderstood son who relates well with his grandfather. New Zealand director, Christine Jeffs, brings an empathetic female perspective to the characters.
Despite what might seem unpromising material, this is a surprising and pleasant feel-good film.
(UK, 2008, d. Nick Moran)
Older audiences will recognise the music hit of the early 1960s (at the time of the launch of the first entertainment satellite, Telstar). Others will recognise the tune when they hear it.
We are in 1961 and entrepreneur, Joe Meek, has rented an upstairs flat over a handbag and leather goods shop and turned it into a recording studio. The group that he calls on for backup are OK but clash with him. Geoff Goddard, a shyly awkward man, has written a song that could become a hit and John Leyton from TVs Biggles is about to record it. The backup singer is practising in the bathroom and the landlady is upset about the noise, the disturbance to the neighbours and the black ooze on the roof from the soundproofing. Not an auspicious start. The money partner is the stiff upper lip Major Banks.
Actor turned writer and director, Nick Moran, first wrote Telstar for the theatre. You can tell from the restricted locations and the emphasis on dialogue. However, this gives the film a dramatic strength, confining the audience to the limited spaces in the upstairs rooms and focusing on the difficulties of the experience and their effect on the characters. The action does move out at times but, by and large, there we are in Joe Meek's limited kingdom.
While there is some interesting background to the music scene of the time, from Billy Fury to the emerging Cliff Richard, Meek dismisses the Mersey sound and misses out on The Beattles, though, at one stage, the Rolling Stones are a supporting group for one of his acts. The theme for Telstar came to Meek in his sleep. It topped the charts in the UK with sales of over two million and eventually topped the US charts.
For those not in the know about London in the first half of the sixties or about this music world, the film is still worth seeing for the performances and for the drama of Joe Meek's mess of a life.
Con O'Neill portrayed Meek on stage and reprises his role to great effect and intensity. He certainly brings Meek and his moods and contradictions to life. The supporting cast has some standout performances – or, perhaps not 'standout' because they seem so right and fit in unobtrusively. Tom Burke as the shy composer Goddard is most persuasive as is JJ Field as the concocted singer, Heinz. Pam Ferris is good as Violet Shenton, the owner of the shop. Kevin Spacey sporting wig and moustache and a voice and accent straight out of the British war movies of the 1950s and 1960s is Major Banks.
Meek had potential and, in fact, influenced the recording industry of his times and later. However, he was a man of demands, expectations and moods, fickle in his loyalties and growing more paranoid over the years, fearing spies and making his staff and artists swear an oath of loyalty to him. He was also conflicted sexually which caused great emotional and legal strain at that period.
The film opens up the era and offers solid drama and characterisations.
TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN
(US, 2009, d. Michael Bay)
Demolition. Destruction. Devastation. These are some of the words that come to mind when asked what Transformers 2 is about. The film is a two and a half hours Heavy Metal bash – and each of the words is relevant. The Transformers themselves are literally metal – and gigantic and heavy as well. And the predominant action in the film is bash.
The first film was not always easy to follow – unless you are part of the target audience. That seems to be boys and young men (of all ages) who are passionate Play Station devotees, experts on the conventions and skills required for computer games (a bit like the hero's college room-mates in the film itself) and are intent on action following action rather than highly developed causal links between the actions or character motivation.
After a brief introduction (that could have gone on longer) which is a touch like 2001: a Space Odyssey with transformers entering into the lives of primitive peoples, the action moves to showing an alliance between friendly transformers and a secret US task force prepared to do battle (and they do) with rogue transformers. Shia LaBeouf? and Megan Fox, from the first film, find that their more tranquil suburban lives (and Shia going to college) are interrupted by emergency calls which leads to their mission to take the transformer matrix to a wounded Transformer Prime so that he be resurrected and confront the evil power grabbers who want to destroy Earth's sun and conquer the humans. Since this involves a trip to Egypt and a showdown near the pyramids, there is some spectacular desert location photography. (And John Turturro returns from the original film for some patriotic heroics.)
Of course, the special effects, especially for the mechanics of the transformations and for the fights are state of the art with reverberating boom sound engineering to accompany them.
Michael Bay continues his reputation for loud slam-bang action shows rather than for characterisation and plot. Perhaps it is he who should be blamed for the year's most frantic and annoying performance, from Julie White as Shia LeBeouf's whining and screeching mother – whom we would willingly sacrifice to the evil transformers if they wanted her.
Apart from the target audience and devoted fans of The Transformers, most audiences would need to warned about what they were letting themselves in for.
(US, 2009, d. Harold Ramis)
Not really Year One, of course, but somewhere, vaguely, 'back then'. It opens with hunters and gathers, moves into an area of farmers (Cain and Abel as well as Adam and other family members), then, suddenly, Abraham and Isaac and a long visit to Sodom.
A reviewer remarked that it need not (should not?) be seen by anyone over 16. A bit harsh. Of course, it's no masterpiece (nor ever intended to be). But, should you happen upon it, it is advised to put your mind into neutral and just coast along because, while it is not particularly funny (unless you have never heard a lot of the jokes before), it is often enough amusing for the moment.
Harold Ramis has made some good comedies like Groundhog Day. Here he is, as co-writer and director, in the vein for broad spoof. He has probably been looking at History of the World Part I and The Life of Brian (think of the stoning in that film and the stoning here). Mel Brooks is not always as subtle as the Pythons but he has a persuasive sense of humour. Year One is not in that league, relying on corny jokes, some bodily function humour (not too much), and the incongruity of characters with 21st century language and attitude using it in a BC situation.
If you like Jack Black's brand of self-deprecating but vain comedy, with his rubber-faced expressions and his boisterous remarks and timing, then you won't be disappointed. This is very much a Jack Black stand-up comedy routine film.
To his neo-Oliver Hardy is Michael Cera's neo-Stan Laurel. Just as Jack Black always does his schtick, so Michael Cera tends to be same (Superbad, Juno, Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist). However, his style is as introverted as Black's is extraverted. He has a fine sense of timing and a tone that combines innocence, common sense observation, a would-be shrewdness and a flair for deadpan one-lines finely delivered.
I don't know what Oliver Platt thinks now of his charade as the overbearingly effeminate high priest. He has probably hurried on to his next film.
Whether Cain and Abel would enjoy the film, I'm not sure. David Cross's Cain gets a lot of screen time while Paul Rudd's Abel... well, we know what happened there. Harold Ramis is Adam. Hank Azariah is Abraham with a thing about imposing circumcision on his enemies in Sodom. Not meant to be offensive to Bible readers and believers, just some corny religious spoofing.