SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS JULY 2010
AFFAIRE FAREWELL, L'
ECLIPSE (THE TWILIGHT SAGA, ECLIPSE)
GET HIM TO THE GREEK
I LOVE YOU TOO
KARATE KID, The
KINGS OF MYKONOS
LETTERS TO JULIET
MOTHER AND CHILD
NEW YORK, I LOVE YOU
SHREK FOREVER AFTER
TOY STORY 3
THE A TEAM
(US, 2010, d. Joe Carnahan)
Blast, boom, bang. Then bang, bang, blast, boom. Not the most subtle of actioners.
Based on the 1980s television series, this is an update in terms of time (war in Iraq) and in weaponry and technology. Hence, the bigger blasts, booms and bangs.
This time we have, of all people, Liam Neeson as the ageing expert and leader of the special squad who seem to be able to achieve any secret mission (unless they are betrayed) and one wonders why they haven’t found Osama Bin Laden or were not called in to cap the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and effect it instantly. Here we see their prowess during the opening sequences in escaping capture and death from several dastardly situations. This is meant as a bit of background to the origins of the team and their working undercover. They later receive a mission to retrieve some plates for minting US notes (which Saddam Hussein had purloined) but it goes awry and they are arrested and imprisoned. But, out they get and go to remedy the situation and unmask the traitor (whom they and we were not expecting). The other members are ‘Faceman’ Peck (Bradley Cooper), B.A. Baracus (Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson) and the seemingly insane daredevil, Murdock (Sharlto Copley who was the put-upon official in District 9).
Complications in their lives and mission include Peck’s former girlfriend and now suspicious military officer (Jessica Biehl, who actually is given a lot more to do than might be expected in this macho macho outing) and CIA smoothie, Lynch (Patrick Wilson). Veteran Gerald Mc Raney is a commanding officer.
Somebody remarked with the two films’ simultaneous releases that what Sex and the City is to female audiences, The A- Team is to male audiences. So, there we are – or not!
(Australia/US, 2009, d. Andrew Lancaster)
A strange mixture of the amusing, the serious and the puzzling.
While set in the US, this film is an Australian venture, filmed in Australia, with a local cast except for the star, Geena Davis.
For those who have experienced car accidents and the loss of loved ones in such accidents, this film might be a bit hard to take. It does not shirk showing accidents and the effect on families because of the loss of children by death or by brain damage.
Geena Davis plays the mother of the family, closely knit, although the children squabble amongst themselves – which leads to a fatal crash. The mother is devastated though self-composed but cannot bring herself to visit her son in an institution. His twin has problems with drinking and communicating. The father walks out and begins another family. It is the youngest, Billy (who was the cause of the distraction that led to the accident) who is the main focus of the film, some years after the accident.
He is something of a home angel, street devil, and gets into pranks (he and his brother's friend shoplifting wearing only ski masks) and stealing a bowling ball that leads to more 'accidents happen' which bring some of the issues and moral consequences into consideration.
This is also a picture of unhappy families, ability and inability to cope with life and being forced to consider taking responsibility for one's actions.
Geena Davis plays the mother as tough and not mealy-mouthed in her comments. Harrison Gilbertson has a strong screen presence as Billy – an indication that he could go on to a successful career.
On the whole, as the title might indicate, this is a film about life and troubles that makes for uncomfortable watching as much of it is close to the bone.
(France, 2009, d. Christian Clarion)
Christian Clarion made the moving film about World War I in the trenches and the brief respite of a ceasefire for Christmas in his Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas). He now comes forward in time to take up another interesting period that is due for consideration and clearer hindsight interpretations: the last years of Leonid Brezhnev’s Russia, its decline and paving the way for Gorbachev and Pestroika and the collapse of the Soviet empire.
And one of the characters involved in this screenplay is Ronald Reagan as president, some interesting insights which means that Oliver Stone who has made movies about Kennedy, Nixon and the two Bushes could turn his gaze on Reagan the politician. (Here he is played by Fred Ward.)
However, the film’s attention goes to a high-placed member of the KGB (played by Serb director, Emir Kusturica) who becomes dissatisfied with the administration and the stagnation in Russia and passes on documents to the French via an employee of a company at its office in Moscow (Guillaume Canet). The material then goes to French president, Francois Mitterand, and is communicated to President Reagan and his administration. Since this all happened under thirty years ago, it makes for interesting viewing and assessment of what was happening between the two power giants at the time.
The film shows the detail of the KGB officer and his meetings with his contact and how the material was transferred to France (the technology was photocopier and camera).
There is also some background of counter-espionage in the KGB as well as the response of the CIA (with Willem Dafoe as director). There are betrayals and counter-betrayals and the sacrificing of individuals for the ‘greater good’.
This is not an exciting spy drama although the escape of the Frenchman and his family in split second timing across the Russian-Finnish? border has its moments. Rather, this is a study of the times, the personalities, the role of ideology and pragmatism. The latter has always been the determinant of what happens in the world.
The film provides some eye-openers for what goes on behind the diplomatic scenes.
(Australia, 2009, d. David Michod)
Towards the end of this fine drama about Melbourne crooks (they are too local and low-key to really be called gangsters), the sympathetic detective played by Guy Pearce gives the 17 year old J (for Joshua) Cody a lecture about the animal kingdom, about who is strong and who is weak, who protects the weak, and whether they are as strong as they think they are. At the beginning, J’s voiceover tells us that his criminal family are always afraid whether they realise it or not and that their collapse seems inevitable.
So, that is what the film is about – although it is more complex than that, especially in the family relationships rather than in the crimes committed.
This is a particularly well-written drama and very well acted, a satisfying look at the underside of human nature.
We are introduced to J (newcomer James Frecheville who invests his character with an overt passivity that covers a teenager forced to face dire realities before his time trying to work out where he stands in life in relationship to his family and in relationship to moral evil and good). When his mother dies of an overdose he contacts his grandmother (Jacki Weaver in one of her best roles, the matriarch of a suburban crime family who can sound like sweetness and light and motherly love but who is as ruthless as they come). Three of his uncles are bank robbers, one a drug dealer. They take it for granted that they have to initiate him into their world and its codes. When one of their associates (Joel Edgerton) is set up by police and shot, the brothers retaliate against the police. Their leader, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn showing a deadly control over the family and, off his medication, ruthless and merciless) controls his youngest brother, Darren (Luke Ford) while the drug dealer, Craig (Sullivan Stapleton embodying a believably crazed but dim dealer) goes out on his own.
J observes all this, learns what power can be as Craig forces him to threaten some too-smart drivers at gunpoint, tries to relate to, then protect, his high school girlfriend, and deal with the interrogations and continued advice from the detectives and the pressure from his uncles.
David Michod has said that this is fiction, though many Melburnians will recognise plot elements from cases of criminals and police from the past. However, these goings on, evil as they are shown to be, are small compared with many of the gangster stories from Melbourne’s recent past and the police corruption and murders in the criminal families.
The film is not exploitative at all in its brief scenes of violence but, with the help of its excellent cast whose performances indicate characters with small detailed nuances, opts for dramatic interaction over conventional gangster conventions.
(US, 2009, d. Raymond de Felitta)
More interesting and enjoyable than might have been anticipated.
City Island is a neighbourhood of the Bronx, New York, that is quite different from the familiar Manhattan of the movies (whose skyline is seen only in the distance in this film). There are long traditions for the families of City Island, especially the fishing families that migrated from Italy. This is a story of one of those families.
Vince Rizzo is played very well by Andy Garcia. He is a correctional officer (which people then say is a prison guard). But, he has a secret from his wife of 20 years, Joyce (Juliana Margulies). It is not another woman. He longs to be an actor and is taking a course. There he meets Molly (Emily Mortimer) who encourages him and urges him to go to an audition for a Scorsese movie. There is a bonus in Alan Arkin playing the drama teacher – who is later seen in the long line for the audition. Vince has two children, Vivian at college and the younger Vince at school. All of them have secrets from one another.
This comes to a head when Vince decides to supervise one of his prisoners, Tony (Steven Strait), in building a bathhouse at his home. In the event, it is Tony and Molly who do know the actual secrets and become catalysts for the revelations and the possible reuniting of the family.
There is plenty of drama of the loud variety because these Italo-Americans? are not shy in revealing their feelings and shouting at each other and trying to shout down each other.
Well-acted, with some unpredictable secrets, except for Joyce who has been feeling neglected and is suspicious of Vince’s going out to poker games (really his acting classes), there is, nevertheless, a welcome humanity underlying these characters and their interactions which makes the film a small but acceptable, even likeable, New York drama.
(France, 2009, d. Radu Milheanu)
A very entertaining film, especially with audiences who have a love for classical music. Radu Milheanu is a Jewish Romanian director who has lived in Paris since his student days. He has made a number of socially conscious films like Va, Viens, Deviens about the Ethiopian Jews and their migrating to Israel. Here he combines some familiar themes of the experience of Communism, especially for Russian Jews. His story enables him to tell part of it in Moscow and the other part in Paris (and filming in Bucharest).
There is an amusing sleight of vision in the opening where we see a conductor passionately working with an orchestra and then finding that this is not quite the case. We then learn about a Bolshoi orchestra that was shut down in mid-performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major in 1980 and the Jewish musicians have not been able to play since and have menial jobs. An opportunity arises for them (or is surreptitiously set up for them) to play at Le Chatelet in Paris. The conductor chooses to play the Tchaikovsky concerto and wants a young French violinist (Inglourious Basterds’ Melanie Laurent compelling in this role) to be the soloist. So far, so lucky.
What follows is comedy, comedy of errors, comedy of apprehension, comedy of exploitation, the kind of scenario that the Ealing Studios comedies of the 1950s might have loved. Can the conductor (Aleksei Guskov) and his best friend (a celloist, now an ambulance driver, the genial Dmitri Nazarov) find enough musicians to play? Can they be trusted (not entirely!)? What about passports and visas?
There are also plenty of absurd moments when they get to Paris and we wonder whether the concert will ever go ahead – and even whether the musicians will turn up.
There is a sub-plot about the conductor and his collaboration with a young Russian violinst who was playing when the 1980 concert was interrupted. The screenplay seems to be leading us in one direction about the young violinist in the present time for us only to find that we had allowed ourselves to be misled (and to have made rash judgments).
We know that the concert will go ahead. Audiences will not be disappointed with the performance. It is very moving with the Tchaikovsky music and the violin artistry.
So, we have plenty of comedy and plenty of serious moments, plenty of pathos and the delight of the music.
ECLIPSE (THE TWILIGHT SAGA: ECLIPSE)
(US, 2010, d. David Slade)
The third in the series of films based on the popular series of novels by Stephenie Meyer. The books and films have a niche audience of females, younger and some older, and they play to their audiences. (There are regular incitements to swoon, sigh, weep, gasp...)
Somebody mentioned the ‘huge disconnect’ between the generally less than enthusiastic response from movie critics and the instant box-office success from fans. In a way, the reviews are critical opinions measuring the film against higher standards of cinema art rather than acknowledging the phenomenon of the popularity of the films and seeing the films as popular, pop art. They do what they set out to do, tell a tale of vampires acceptable to a wide audience, without the blood and gore (except here for some initial ‘hunting’ scenes where Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard) ‘turns’ a young man, Riley (Australian Xavier Samuels in a substantial role) who then transforms innocent bystanders into an army of ‘newborns’ who will be out to attack the Cullens and Bella for Victoria’s vengeance – which they do in some vivid battle sequences.
In the background and foreground is the now familiar romance between Bella (Kristen Stewart), a little less pouty this time, rather more determined to be transformed or ‘turned’, explaining that she feels an outsider and not normal, but faced with the marriage proposal from Edward (Robert Pattison, more pouty than Bella, and just as pallid and languid as before until he has to come more alive to protect Bella and do battle with Riley. Taylor Lautner as Jake has had his role beefed up (and beefcaked up - as Edward asks, ‘Doesn’t he own a shirt?!) and he and his werewolves have a lot more to do here, especially in the battle with the newborns. The effects for these huge wolves are very well done.
So, it is the unusual life in its usual way in the blue-grey mountains and forests of Washington state, a blend of teen angst (with reason), high school studies and graduation, life at the police station for Bella’s father, sage meetings of the native Americans as well as some elaborate flashbacks to fill out the stories of some of the characters.
As always, Edward is a gentleman vampire of the old school, of gentlemen that is (not old school of vampires) and his behaviour towards Bella is courteous and proper (despite her trying to persuade him otherwise). Naturally, we leave them in a field of flowers and embrace, now having to wait for the forthcoming two-part finale to the series, Breaking Dawn.
GET HIM TO THE GREEK
(US, 2010, d. Nicholas Stoller)
Refinement is not the first, second or even hundredth word that springs to mind in reviewing Get Him to the Greek.
Rather, this is one of those raucous American comedies where there is potential to offend sensitive audiences as well as potential to offer some laughs to different sensitivities about how silly human beings can be.
The silly human being in this case is a British rock star named Aldous Snow. He appeared as a supporting character in writer-director Nicholas Stoller’s previous film, Forgetting Sarah Marshall (and she has a moment or two in this film). He was played by comedian Russell Brand who is not known for being a quiet or subtle performer. He tends to be in your face with few holds barred in his topics for laughs or in his language and references for jokes. He comes across as a sometimes raving extrovert and the success of the film mainly depends on whether you enjoy this type of character and Russell Brand’s interpretation. Like him or not, he does have his moments.
Aldous Snow is the ‘him’ of the title. For those who don’t know LA, the Greek is short for the Greek Theatre where rock concerts are held. The command ‘get’ refers to Aaron Green, a publicist and producer for a record company. He is played with a mixture of affability, exasperation and some silliness too by Jonah Hill who has shown a flair for offbeat comedy in many roles in recent years, including Superbad and Funny People. It is Aaron who has the bright (?) idea to resurrect Snow’s career by getting him to sing at a concert in Los Angeles. Snow is in London, has a reputation for erratic behaviour and the rock star propensity for drugs, drink and sex. Will Aaron persuade him, get him out of London, get him to LA (after a detour to see his musician father, played by Colm Meaney, in Las Vegas). And what effect will this have on Aaron who thinks he has broken up with his medical student girlfriend (Ellisabeth Moss) who wants to move to Seattle for hospital opportunities?
A surprise is Sean Combs (P.Diddy) in the role of the demanding, manipulative and wheedling record company director.
The tone is set in the opening credits which are quite an amusing parody of music videos, especially one called African Child which is claimed to have done more damage to Africa than apartheid (and pokes at Madonna and other western adopting parents). It is also a summary of Snow’s success and then the collapse of his career and separation from his wife and music partner, Jackie Q (a surprising and different performance from Rose Byrne).
There is quite an amount of mayhem along the way to the Greek. But, underneath the bravado and living up to the reputation, there is a redeemable character inside Snow who, while he often does his best to undermine Aaron’s life and values, allows Aaron to be a catalyst for some change for the better. All is not lost. (There is a remark that British rock stars, unlike so many Americans, don’t burn out and kill themselves; after all, look at the Rolling Stones and their age and popularity.)
One of the producers of the film is Judd Apatow. Most of his films have the dramatic curve of beginning with obnoxious characters and/or obnoxious behaviour, centring on immersing the audience in the obnoxious and then ending with an optimistic and morally reforming finale: the Judd Apatow Syndrome. The same here.
(US, 2010, d. Dennis Dugan)
Here is Adam Sandler, fellow actors and friends, and a director who has worked with him quite often. What does it add up to? Something like a big-budget home movie of Adam Sandler and friends. Perhaps the jokes are too much in-house (and repeated and repeated), perhaps they are particularly American, perhaps they relate too strongly to a United States summer vacation by the water... but they do not travel as well as might be anticipated.
Five basketball playing kids win a tournament and are the pride of their coach. Thirty years later he dies and they re-unite for the funeral and stay on for a weekend together with their families. They goof around a lot, quite a lot, very much a lot... They trade sling-offs to each other all the time (and are more than a bit unkind to older and plainer characters). They pick at what is wrong with the others until they are forced into some heart-to-heart talking, confessing their failures – with some firm purpose of at least a little amendment of life.
Some of it is quite amusing, but a lot of it doesn’t quite make it with those who are not in the circle of friends on screen. Sandler has become an LA agent, wealthy, with a glamorous fashion-designing wife, Salma Hayak, and some brattish kids who are spoilt. (Part of the family values emphasis of the screenplay – which is remarkably free of swearing – is getting kids away from their play-stations and getting outside and learning some of the simpler joys of play and life.) Kevin James is out of a job but pretending he is in work, while Maria Bello is his wife who is still breast-feeding their 48 month old son. David Spade is the least amusing as a single man with the eye of a wolf. Chris Rock is rather subdued, but has some typical one-liners, as the hen-pecked husband of May Rudolph with a large, flatulent mother-in-law. Rob Schneider is very much Rob Schneider who is into New Age practice with an older wife (Joyce Van Patten) and two unbelievably glamorous daughters.
Mix it all up and you get a mid-life home movie.
I LOVE YOU TOO
(Australia, 2010, d. Daina Reid)
This is a film that might grow on you as it goes along. 'Grow' is a key word because the film, an Ocker romantic comedy, is about growth and the possibilities for maturing for thirty-something Australian men. In the opening scenes we realise that, offputtingly, they have a fair way to go.
However, Jim (a quite effective Brendan Cowell who can do both the lout and the would-be romantic) is attracted to Alice from London (Yvonne Strahovski) and they live together for over three years. She would like to marry him, but he can't find the courage to say 'I love you'. Jim has relied for too long on his older sister looking after him, lives in a granny flat at his deceased parents' home (he always says, 'bungalow', and has had a job for ten years driving a model train at a playground (run by Steve Bisley). And he has relied far too long on his wannabe womanising mate, Blake (Peter Hallier who portrays Blake believably and who also wrote the screenplay). What to do – especially when Alice gets a job offer in London?
By accident (literally, because he crashes his stolen car), he meets Charlie, a diminutive man (played very interestingly by Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent, both versions of Death at a Funeral)) who is mourning the death of his love and writes charming letters (not sent) to a glamorous Italian model. Charlie reluctantly begins to help Jim, especially with letters. There is quite some pathos in Charlie's story, especially when the model arrives in Australia to promote her book. And there are some Australian versions of screwball comedy as Jim tries to woo back Alice.
In many ways, it is a hit and miss comedy, with some amusing moments, some corny moments and some moving moments. Ultimately, it is pleasantly thoughtful.
THE KARATE KID
(US, 2010, d. Harald Zwart)
It is 26 years since the original Karate Kid was released starring Ralph Macchio as the young lad trained in the arts of defence by Mr Miyagi, played by Pat Morita. It was followed by two sequels and another starring a young Hilary Swank as ‘The Next Karate Kid’. This time, our hero is not so much the karate kid as The Kung Fu Kid, because that is what he is trained in and what he demonstrates in the climactic tournament. The 12 year olds of 1984 are now asked to make up their minds as to whether their now 12 year old kids should see this one or not.
There has been some debate about the classification of the film, some vocal protests that it was too violent for a PG rating. It was given a PG rating in the US and the US Catholic Bishops Conference reviewer judged it suitable for adults and adolescents, noting the fights and the violence associated with them and suggesting, rightly, that parents and guardians should decide suitability according to their knowledge of the children’s sensibilities – though they do warn that there is ‘an unnecessary kiss between pre-teens’! (but it is presented in the gentlest of ways and in context) as well as ‘the use of a crass term for the human posterior’!.
This re-make, or re-working, relies on the basic plot outline of the original: a mother and son move to a new location where the son does not fit in and is bullied; befriends a young girl; is trained by a martial arts expert who works as a handyman and fights against students of a brutally-minded instructor. This time the location is much more exotic than a move from New Jersey to California. It is from the US to China – and location production takes great advantage of Beijing and its sights, the mountainous countryside and the Great Wall of China. (It should serve as a great PR film for Americans who don’t know what modern China looks like or how it is both changing and the same, and become aware of some of its customs with respect and realise that there are other languages in the world.)
When Ralph Macchio played the karate kid, he was, in fact, 23 years old. Here we have Jaden Smith, aged 11 when he made the film, acting 12. The film is strong enough to attract a teen audience and boys and girls around the age of Smith and the young violinist who befriends him. Jaden Smith made an engaging impression when he appeared with his father, Will Smith, in The Pursuit of Happyness. He does not let us down here. The camera loves him and, even though he is of a very slight build, he convinces that he is athletic and could do all the training and bouts that we see on screen. He is a bit surly about going to China with his mother (Taraji P. Henson) and the initial bullying gets him down. But, when he is saved from the aggressive boys by the quiet handyman, he submits to the discipline of the training and learns what it is to focus and to act with respect. (Of, course, in this the film is offering a decent role model and has its ‘inspirational’ moments.)
Jackie Chan might seem an obvious choice to play Mr Han, given his long career and his martial arts skills, dexterity and creativity. But, he does not bring on his genial and comic persona at all. This Jackie Chan performance is low-key, quietly wise, a mentor and a father-figure. He does it very well and sympathetically, indeed.
It is hard not to be really annoyed at the bullying and hard not to want to see some vengeance wreaked on the boys. But, Mr Han explains that Kung Fu is for making peace and trains the boy accordingly. Which means that the tournament bouts are stirring and we want the kid to win despite all the odds, being underdog, being foreign, being the target of the unscrupulous rival coach. John G. Avildsen directed the original and its sequels and also Rocky, creating an image of the battler who overcomes obstacles and gets up again. The Rocky spirit still lives in this Karate Kid.
THE KINGS OF MYKONOS
(Australia, 2010, d. Peter Andrikidis)
Australia, since the end of World War II, has been a very Greek country, Melbourne allegedly having the third largest Greek population after Athens and Thessaloniki. Quite an audience for this film, plus other Australians who have enjoyed the comic and satirical theatre, television and film work of Nick Giannopoulis and his team of Wogs. They made Wogboy some years ago, capitalising on what used to be a derogatory term for migrants, especially from Greece and Italy, into an endearing term.
A warning is needed for those contemplating meeting the Wogboys again. This is not highbrow artistic comedy and those who look at it as if it were highbrow make the equivalent mistake of reading a newspaper’s comic strip as if it were the editorial. That said, Kings of Mykonos is undemandingly amusing farce with fun being poked at Greek stereotypes, Australian stereotypes and Italian would-be Casanova stereotypes.
It also borrows heavily from those stories of secret property deals by smug double dealers and the goodies, the ordinary blokes (and whatever the Greek translation of that is), finally winning out.
While there are some scenes in Melbourne, in Yarraville, most of the film takes place on sunny Mykonos, on the beaches and in the village, and could serve as tourist propaganda (as long as you avoided the internal squabbles amongst the population).
Nick Giannopoulis is a genial screen presence, an Aussie battler whose forte is not subtlety but who believes in fair deals (most of the time). His mate, Vince Colosimo, is more of a one note character, sex-preoccupied (and that is an understatement), who falls for an Italian tourist – and it could be the real thing for a change. Alex Dimitriades is the smooth-looking and smooth-talking baddy.
There are many corny lines and corny moments (as well as some very, very corny lines and moments and some silly malapropisms – or whatever the Greek equivalent is). But, it is meant to be light good fun and about trying to do the right thing.
LETTERS TO JULIET
(US, 2010, d. Gary Winick)
A romantic tale – both for the young and for the old.
For the young: Sophie (Amanda Seyfried, seen frequently these years, Mamma Mia, Dear John, Chloe, Boogie Woogie, Jennifer’s Body) is a fact-checker with the New Yorker, engaged to an exuberant enthusiast, Victor, who is about to open his own restaurant (Gael Garcia Bernal). They have decided to go on a honeymoon to Verona before the wedding because, after it, all will be busy at the restaurant. For Victor, the alleged honeymoon is visiting vineyards, olive groves, cheese factories, wine auctions, to get the best produce for his restaurant. Sophie loyally tags along but wants to be with Victor and do the touristic thing, especially in the city of Romeo and Juliet. When she visits Juliet’s house and sees quite a number of sniffling and weeping women writing letters to Juliet and putting them on a notice board and a group of women, Juliet’s secretaries, answering them, she offers to help. She accidentally discovers a letter from Claire about Lorenzo written fifty years earlier and answers it.
For the old: Claire’s rather priggish grandson, Charlie (Australian Christopher Egan) arrives and takes an instant dislike to Sophie. He has unwillingly brought Claire to Verona to try to find Lorenzo. Since Claire is played by Vanessa Redgrave at her simplest and sweetest, a most engaging performance, we are drawn into the quest to find the romantic Lorenzo. After quite a number of encounters with all types of Italian men, Claire, Charlie, Sophie and we actually find him. A most happy reunion and joy all round – except for Charlie who has (not particularly credibly) fallen for Sophie and Sophie who realises she must break with Victor and go back to Italy. Sophie and Charlie also have a mock balcony scene to remind us that there is no real battle between modern Capulets and Montagues.
And who should play Lorenzo but Franco Nero? With art imitating life (or was this the source for the plot of the film?), Franco Nero and Vanessa Redgrave were in a relationship in the mid and late 1960s – and, indeed, married in 2006. Looks as though the film’s wedding scenes were not acted – the love was real!
(France, 2009, d. Stephane Brize)
Very French – but most cultures would identify with the characters and the situations. Somebody remarked that they were reminded of Brief Encounter (even with an ending at a railway station), but this film develops its characters with a great attention to detail, quite ordinary characters, living quite ordinary lives in a French provincial town.
Jean (Vincent Lindon, seen more recently as the swimming coach in Welcome) is married to Anne- Marie (Aure Autika) and they have a young son, Jeremie. They seem to be a close-knit family and are initially seen talking homework with Jeremie, especially about verbs and the objective case (not a usual start for a drama). Jean is a serious builder and spends time as well caring for his about to be 80 father. Anne- Marie works at a printer. Jeremie is an average student and is being taught by a new teacher for the year, Mademoiselle Veronique Chambon (Sandrine Kiberlain, married to Vincent Lindon for ten years and they work very well together).
As mentioned, the film pays great attention to detail, some of the sequences being quite long: Jean washing his father’s feet, Jean invited to talk to the class about his job and answer questions. The audience is immersed in this provincial world.
But, what can happen? What will happen? With a title like Mademoiselle Chambon, we might expect the teacher to be at the centre of a love affair, a tragedy, unrequited love and disappointment (the kind of emotional crisis that Zola or Flaubert wrote about in 19th century France). There is something of this, but the film’s main concern is with Jean in the 21st century. He is particularly introverted and it takes a while for us to appreciate that what we think might be going on in his mind is actually going on. The film moves us in this direction by the use of Mademoiselle Chambon playing the violin and then listening to CDs with Jean.
As the relationship becomes more complex, Jean invites the teacher to play the violin at his father’s 80th birthday party. There is a wonderful sequence of music, sound, nuanced expressions from the cast and, until the end of the piece, no words, played to Elgar’s. This sequence indicates emotionally but very clearly what is happening.
In many ways the characters are quite reserved and generally behave in a reserved manner. So, it is quite a shock when Jean reacts angrily and completely unreasonably to his wife’s suggestion of a buffet for his father’s party. He is then aggressively angry at the building site. But, almost completely, this is a film of interiors, of feelings, of infatuation, of live, of infidelity and, ultimately, of decisions. Bittersweet.
(US, 2010, d. Tom Dey)
Moviemakers have a passion for telling dog stories. And, of course, so do their owners. So, there seems to be a ready market out there for more dogs on screen. Marmaduke is one that fulfils the definition of a family film. Large great dane who rarely stops talking and making goofs and gaffes which should please the younger audiences. Dogs talking and aping human behaviour will entertain humans in a non-demanding mood.
In Marley and Me, Owen Wilson owned a dog and lived through years of affection and disruption. This time, he is the voice of the chattering Marmaduke. There are some other interesting voices for the range of dogs, especially those who hang out in an LA dog park. Emma Stone is the nice but ignored Maisie while Fergie is the attractive Collie, girlfriend of the bully around town, Bosco, who is voiced by Kiefer Sutherland. Two Wayans brothers have comic dog roles and there is the unmistakeable drawl of Sam Elliott for the old veteran. Lee Pace has a lot to do as Dad, put through all kinds of paces, so to speak, by Marmaduke, transferring his family from Kansas to LA and trying to ingratiate himself with the boss of the pet food company, William H. Macy. Judy Greer has much less to do as Mum and looks on benignly at the goings on, with Marmaduke’s mayhem and her pouty young teenage daughter who is at that age... and the young son who skateboards, does not want to play soccer but does not want to disappoint his father.
Marmaduke is sometimes a bit slow on the uptake despite his comments about how the family is going and how he thinks they take his advice. But, making friends early with a group of muts, including Maisie and a Brit-voiced dog voiced by Steve Coogan, he is attracted by the alluring collie, sets up his fellow pet, the cat (George Lopez) to play scared so that he can be the hero. Trapped into entering a dog surfing contest, he does very well – and it all goes to his head, with dire results. How can Marmaduke be redeemed? You will have to go and see it (or watch it over the kids’ shoulders when it comes on DVD).
MOTHER AND CHILD
(US, 2009, d. Rodrigo Garcia)
A simple title for a complex, always interesting and always moving portrait, mainly of women, but also of some men and loving and family relationships, mingled with a lot of pain and sorrow.
Rodrigo Garcia previously directed two films which explore female characters and relationships: Things You Can Tell by Just Looking at Her (1999) and Nine Lives (2005). He has written and directed for television, especially several episodes of Six Feet Under and In Treatment. He has great skill in writing credible characters, telling stories with feeling and directing them for unobtrusive maximum effect.
There are at least seven mothers and children here but there are three at the centre of the film. Annette Bening gives one of her best performances as a fifty year old woman who had to give up her baby for adoption when she gave birth at age 14. A demanding perfectionist with a curt manner, she looks after her aged and infirm mother and resents her mother’s friendship with their house cleaner and her daughter. A co-worker at the hydrotherapy centre, a sympathetic Jimmy Smits, alienates her at first but a series of events leads to her softening and the possibilities of happiness in her life.
An excellent Naomi Watts plays an ambitious, steely-controlled (even in seduction) lawyer who was adopted and whose adoptive parents are dead. Independent, she goes to work in an LA firm for Samuel L. Jackson in a very humane role.
Meanwhile, Kerry Washington finds that she and her husband cannot have children and want to adopt. They meet Cherry Jones as the kind nun who supervises the adoption program. The pregnant mother who is to give the couple her child bonds with the adoptive mother but things don’t work out for either the marriage or the adoption, although there is a satisfyingly happy ending despite a great deal of grief. The mothers of the husband and wife are important in this story as offering other angles on the mother and child theme, supportive mothers and dominating mothers.
Somebody remarked that this is the material of television soap opera. Yes, this is often the contents of episodes, but Garcia’s treatment of material and characters goes well below the surface of the stories and explores the feelings for mothers for their children. The men are at the edge of the portraits of the women and several of them don’t come off very well at all.
The film runs for just over two hours which enables us to spend quite an amount of time with the three principal women, to share their lives, their emotions and their decisions, even when we don’t agree with them or find them sometimes alienating. It is a tribute to the three actresses that they are convincing and take us into the interior lives of the women they are portraying.
NEW YORK, I LOVE YOU
(US, 2009, d. Fateh Akin, Yvan Attal, Brett Ratner, Shekhar Kapur, Randall Balsmeyer, Joshua Marston, Shunji Iwai, Allen Hughes, Natalie Portman, Wen Jiang, Mira Nair.
The compendium film, Paris, Je T’aime gathered together short stories from the 18 arrondissements of Paris. A group of fine international directors created their own style of tale to pay tribute to the city and their love for it. The producers hope to make a series. New York is the second which plans for Shanghai to follow.
Each of the stories in Paris was quite distinctive. Here they tend to run into each other with some cross-cutting of events and characters – which makes it harder to identify, if one can, the particular styles of the directors. They are quite an international group, five of the eleven coming from Asia and one from Germany. There are two women directors, Mira Nair and Natalie Portman (who also appears as an actress in Mira Nair’s story).
Action is mainly confined to Manhattan, though there is a wonderful story towards the end set in Brooklyn and Coney Island, with Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman, 63 years married and out on a walk, bickering in the way that some old couples do, which is a sign of their affection.
Most of the stories are basically realistic, although there is an interestingly enigmatic tale of a an ageing singer returning to a hotel where she once stayed and experiencing something of déjà vu when she encounters a hunched bellhop who insists on carrying her cases and who provides violets for her moments after she asks for them. A great number of the shots are of reflections in an elliptical mirror. It is a segment directed by Shekhar Kapur (both Elizabeth films) and acted very well by Julie Christies as the singer, Shia La Boeuf surprisingly good as the bellhop and John Hurt as the concierge.
Two stories have an Asian flavour, Mira Nair’s picture of an Indian shopkeeper and his friendship (and imaginary (?) marriage to a young Hasidic woman, and Fateh Akin’s story of a Chinese pharmacist whom a Turkish artist wants to paint.
Cuban dancer, Carlos Acosta, is mistaken for a nanny as he looks after a little girl in Central Park, but he is her father. This is the Natalie Portman story. Brett Ratner’s story is a tongue in cheek tale of a gawky young man (Anton Yelchin) persuaded by a shopkeeper friend (James Caan) to take his wheelchair-bound daughter (Olivia Thirlby) to the prom – it has a surprising and amusing NY ending. Hayden Christensen is a pickpocket only to be bested by Andy Garcia. Orlando Bloom is a composer trying to complete his work for a film on time.
There are some amusing moments when, in the film’s opening, Justin Bartha and Bradley Cooper both get into a taxi and proceed to offer advice to the driver who ousts them. Both men reappear in subsequent stories with their girlfriends. In terms of girlfriends, Ethan Hawke does a spiel outside a restaurant about his sexual prowess only to find that he has been boasting to a prostitute. Robin Wright seems to be a prostitute but may only be playing a game with her husband, Chris Cooper.
The stories and tone indicate the flavour but, all in all, despite some emotion and some effective acting, it is a rather slight tribute of love to New York City.
SHREK FOREVER AFTER
(US, 2010, d. Mike Mitchell)
After three Shrek features, it is easy to forget how unlikely a popular animation character Shrek might have been on paper and how he won over any doubters, including hardboiled critics at the Cannes film festival where the first film was in competition. But, we all liked him, and Donkey and the cartoon characters like the Gingerbread man, and Fiona the King and Queen of Far, Far Away. It helped that these characters were voiced by Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, Julie Andrews and John Cleese. And, then came Puss in Boots with those mesmerising, piteous eyes, with Antonio Banderas’ voice.
They are back again for this fourth episode, seemingly the last. And it may well be the last since a lot of the surprise has inevitably long gone and the films rely on affectionate familiarity. But, the plot this time is quite dark (as is the photography of a dingy Far, Far Away). It seems to be a variation on the classic, It’s A Wonderful Life. There, George Bailey, in despair, is taken by Clarence the Angel to see what his home town of Bedford Falls would have been like had he not lived. It is a squalid place.
Here we do not have an angel but rather the ambitious Rumpelstiltskin who is power-hungry and does a shady deal with the King and Queen to rescue Fiona and for them to sign away their kingdom. When he hears that Shrek and Fiona have broken the spell through their true-love kiss, he entraps the happy family ogre, Shrek, to do a deal to have one free day. This is where, for Shrek, he sees what a wonderful life he had and how far, far from wonderful is a life where Fiona does not know him and is antagonised by him, where Donkey does not know him. He has to rescue Fiona all over again – and even the kiss does not resolve the problem at first. Donkey is sceptical. Puss does his wide-eyed turn again (which did bring some hearty laughter from the audience). Pinocchio tells lies and Ginger is a petty villain. The ogres, however, are on side, but trapped by Rumpelstiltskin.
This darker sequel is reminiscent of Babe, Pig in the City, which left the happy rural countryside and audiences found it rather harder to enjoy.
The other trouble is Rumpelstiltskin himself. He looks like a very short twerp and behaves like it, with an objectionably strident voice, hardly a worthy villain for the film or an opponent for Fiona and Shrek. He is voiced by Walt Dohrn from the story department.
One of the most amusing aspects is that many popular songs from the decades are incorporated into the story as commentary on the action and characters.
TOY STORY 3
(US, 2010, d. Lee Unkrich)
Once upon a time (well, way back in 1995!), Pixar Studios created a contemporary fairy tale about a boy and his toys and the rest is not history because it is still going on in this third sequel to Toy Story.
Actually, this one has a lot to commend it because, while it relies on familiarity with characters and some repeats of plot about lost toys, it has some interesting new plot developments. Andy is now 17 and on his way to college, more than a little off-hand with his mother and sisters and referring to his toys as ‘junk’. Needless to say, he has the opportunity to repent and redeem himself before the end!
This is the adventure of the toys who are nearly collected by mistake as trash (instead of being stored in the family attic, except for Woody who has been put in a college carton) but who escape and find that they are donated to a child care centre (child care being one of the least things going on there as the rampaging tots wreak havoc on toys). The toys are presided over by a large pink bear, Lots- O’ Huggin (voiced by Ned Beatty) who is not what he seems and has a back story which puts a more sinister light on his benign welcome (and his comeuppance). The toys feel imprisoned and stage something of a coup but their adventures are further complicated by extreme peril, not only in a garbage truck and crusher but in a blazing furnace to deal with land-fill. The adventures are quite exciting for adults and for children.
Most of the old toys are back again, led by Tom Hanks’s Woody (who does get a little tiresome in his persistent declarations of loyalty and urging the toys to go home to Andy). Recently this reviewer took the opportunity to watch the original on a plane and found that Woody was fairly one-dimensional then compared with Buzz Lightyear and his ingenuous pomposity. Tim Allen’s Buzz is the same here only more so and more endearingly so as the leader of the toys who don’t want to go home and as the hostage in the coup. The scene where they try to restore his buttons and they turn on his Spanish version which leads to Buzz’s dialogue in Spanish along with songs and tango and romancing Jessie is good fun.
Also good fun is the introduction of Barbie and Ken (one of Lots- O’ Huggins henchmen, voiced by Michael Keaton) and poking fun at the Ken image, especially, in some sly dialogue.
The film opens with the toys involved in a re-enactment of the old west and the runaway train, the cliffs... and that is good fun as well.
Probably worth repeating, this second sequel is good fun.
(UK/Denmark, 2010, d. Nicolas Winding Refn)
Nicolas Winding Refn has never been afraid of the legacy of Viking violence in the Scandinavian culture. Some of his Danish films have been tough looks at the drug culture (The Pusher series, Bleeder). His visit to the UK produced a portrait of the brutal criminal yet artist who liked to be known as Bronson, the title of the film. Very few punches withheld in that one.
Now he has gone back to the Viking days and the confrontation between pagans and the new Christians. On the one hand, this is much more a contemplative film than his others. On the other hand, he has interspersed the gaze at the early medieval world (or Dark Ages world) with physical battles, some war combat and some hackingly graphic deaths and blood spurts. The contemplation can put off the action fans and the blood and killings can put off the contemplatives.
‘Gaze’ could be the key word to appreciating this beautifully shot introduction into a past and alien world. So many of the camera takes are quite long, giving the audience enough time to gaze at and reflect on the ruggedly majestic landscapes, the men (no women), the iconic poses and the static compositions of character and background. Full marks for this aspect of the film. Audiences might be mesmerised by this gazing and so be able to withstand the sudden shocks of violence.
But, for many, the difficulty will be with the plot or lack of it and the enigmatic characters we are gazing at and, sometimes, listening to although speech is at a minimum. There are three headed sections, Wrath, The Silent Warrior and the Holy Men.
Basically, we are introduced to a mute warrior with one good eye. He is played by Mads Mikkelson (Pusher, Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, Clash of the Titans). Mikkelson can look sinister even in sympathetic roles so he dominates the screen here whether wrestling with an opponent, suddenly slitting a throat, or standing icon-like looking for worlds to conquer. There are some pagan characters who have shackled him. After his escape, there are several Christians who are obsessed with crusades to the Holy Land and converting pagans. There is a final confrontation with Indians – the would-be crusaders are lost but they seem to have gone in the opposite direction and found the Americas.
There is also a child who observes, acting like a chorus to the proceedings.
Starkly beautiful, frighteningly barbaric and puzzlingly enigmatic, the film seems more like an installation to be contemplated panel by panel than a cinema movie.