SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS JUNE 2011
BURKE AND HARE
FAST FIVE (THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS FIVE)
FROM TIME TO TIME
HANGOVER II, The
HERE I AM
HOODWINKED TOO! THE BATTLE BETWEEN HOOD AND EVIL
LITTLE WHITE LIES
MRS CAREY 'S CONCERT
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES
WATER FOR ELEPHANTS
X MEN: FIRST CLASS
(Australia, 2010, d. Michael Henry)
The action of this film takes place over a couple of hours. A music teacher finishes a class and drives home to his country house. He is attacked in his home by a masked group who attempt to kill him. As they speak and act, we hear some indications of who they are and why they are trying to kill the teacher. When one of them leaves his mobile phone behind, they decide to return to retrieve it, only to find that their victim is not dead. The process of killing him starts again but this time there is a lot more explanation, changes of attitudes in some of the characters, some revelations of secrets and lies, some truth and some final deceptions.
Audiences have a sympathy for the teacher who seems a decent type. We soon learn that his attackers are blaming him for the suicide of a student and of a sexual liaison with her. Our sympathies are challenged as we hear another side of the story. But, with a group of five in on the plan, it is much more complicated than that. In fact, our point of view is challenged several times as we learn more about all the characters.
The leader of the group is the sister of the dead girl who, deep down, is feeling guilty for not doing more to listen to her sister and her problems. She then feels guilty about not knowing the truth when she realises what has happened. The other girl in the attack is the dead girl’s best friend. We learn more about their relationship, though many in the audience might be suspicious about her involvement without quite knowing why. There are three young men involved. One is the dead girl’s boyfriend, a loud-mouth, a prone to violence type, who presumes guilt more on impulse than thought. Another is the dead girl’s brother who at first waits outside but then becomes more edgy and involved. The third man seems more secure but we find that he is rather easily led and manipulated and becomes more responsible for the complications which develop.
And, so the title? Who is to blame? And for what? The dead girl’s killing herself? Or for manipulations and deceptions?
The film was shot outside Perth and takes advantage of the bush settings and the isolated house, except for some tension as a postal delivery man turns up unexpectedly and the group have to evade detection – he leaves a note that he will come back later, and he does, which leads to more evasion and suspense for the characters and the audience. This is not just a suspense device because the contents of the package will reveal the truth.
A small Australian production, a bit repetitious and frantic at times. But, it does achieve what it set out to do, raises issues of revenge and violence, not thinking things through – and the dire consequences.
BURKE AND HARE
(UK, 2010, d. John Landis)
For two such disreputable characters, grave robbers, Burke and Hare, they have appeared in quite a number of films. Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi were their equivalents in the 1945, The Body Snatcher, based on a Robert Louis Stevenson story. Donald Pleasence and George Rose were in the Flesh and the Fiends (1960). Their real names were used in 1972, Burke and Hare with Derren Nesbitt and Glynn Edwards. They were fictionalised again in 1985 in The Doctor and the Devils (with Jonathan Pryce and Stephen Rea). Back they are to their real names in 2010. And they have popped up in supporting roles in other films.
The 1972 version created the background of Edinburgh society in 1827 when Burke and Hare sold cadavers (some of whom they helped on their way) to Dr Knox for his anatomy lectures. This film does the same and is quite lavish in its recreation of the period and its look. We feel transported back into the times, the dinginess as well as the respectability. But the film and seriousness?
In the 1960s there were a number of period films set in England in the 18th and 19th centuries, following the success of Tom Jones. But, they took the humorous and satiric line in their storytelling, films like Where’s Jack (a highwayman story) and Lock Up Your Daughters (memories of Hogarth). This Burke and Hare goes for the comedy and the satire.
In many ways it is often silly. However, the blend of the serious with the silly makes for a sense of realism as well as for some laughs and a lot of smiles – though its macabre sense of humour may not appeal to those who like their comedies to be straightforward.
Not only are the production values quite high, the director is John Landis, out of films for some years, but evoking memories of An American Werewolf in London, let alone The Blues Brothers. He has always enjoyed putting hijinks on screen.
And the cast. Gollum himself, Andy Serkis is Hare, while Simon Pegg plays more of the ingenuous straight man as Burke. The two rival Edinburgh doctors are played by Tom Wilkinson (Dr Knox who took delivery of the corpses) and Tim Curry. And who should be the captain of the militia but Ronny Corbett (who turned 80 just after the film’s UK release)? All kinds of British character actors turn up to make a kind of medley of British comedy, including Christopher Lee, Bill Bailey, Hugh Bonneville and Jenny Agutter.
There is a feminist addition to the plot. Burke becomes infatuated with a lady of the night with theatrical ambitions (Isla Fisher) whose aim is to put on an all women’s version of Macbeth. She is looking for a sponsor with money.
In doing a quick Wikipedia check after getting home from the screening, I see that the film gives a fairly true picture of the episode in Scottish criminal history after all – but, as the film notes at the beginning, ‘This is based on a true story – except the parts that are not’. If you are in the mood for a touch of 21st century carry on, Burke and Hare should keep you smiling.
(France, 2011, d. Olivier Assayas)
Some older audiences will remember forty years ago Frederick Forsthye’s novel, The Day of the Jackal, and Fred Zinneman’s exciting film of a fictitious attempt on the life of General de Gaulle. The Jackal became a nickname for mysterious assassins.
Illich Ramirez Sanchez, a Venezuelan revolutionary cum hitman, who linked with Palestinian rebel groups in the 1970s was referred to as the Jackal, but gave himself the public name of Carlos.
This film is an abbreviated version, half the length of the original mini-series for television. It runs for two and three quarter hours. It plays quite well in terms of photography and style on the big screen.
Director Olivier Assayas, who has directed all kinds of French films from personal dramas to period pieces, from thrillers to science fiction, employs a much more realistic approach to his subject. It is not a documentary, but it resembles some documentary styles at times, especially with names and dates, as it covers the period from the mid-1970s to the mid 1990s, when Carlos was taken by French authorities from the Sudan and imprisoned, where he still remains.
The film has the advantage of having Edgar Ramirez, himself from Venezuela, play Carlos.
At first, he is eager to be employed by the Palestinians, travels between Lebanon and France, as well as a job in London, aiming to become an important person in the network. He does, though the Palestinians are wary of his ambitions and his propensity for self-promotion and not taking orders well. He himself mouthes revolutionary language but, as time goes on, his associates and the audience realise that he is more pragmatic than idealistic, likes the good life and ease rather than self-sacrifice. The film also emphasises his narcissistic linking of his sexuality with his love of weapons. At times he indulges himself and puts on weight only to lose it in terrorist training camps and regimes. Later his vanity will lead him to liposuction. He is fickle in relationships, his wife eventually leaving him and his having little trouble in acquiring another.
The key section of the film and the most interesting is the attack on the OPEC meeting in Vienna in 1975 where he leads a group into the building, holds the delegates to ransom and divides them into friends, neutral or enemies (with the backing of Sadam Hussein’s Iraq against Iran still under the Shah). Some of his associates are eagerly trigger-happy. With the granting of a plane by the Austrian government and a flight to Algeria, the plan goes askew, with Tunisia and Libya refusing to let the plane refuel and a compromise found with Saudi money. (To this extent, the film is interesting in 2011 with the uprisings in north Africa and Colonel Gadaffi playing a role in this drama in the 70s.)
Carlos was responsible for the deaths of police in an attempt to arrest him in Paris (which was the ground for his ultimate trial and sentence). Let go by the Palestinians, he is taken up by Syria, with its links to Russia, the KGB, East Germany and the Stasi, and involved in arms smuggling during the 1980s.
The last part of the film shows Carols abandoned by Syria after the collapse of the Soviet Union and his finding refuge in Sudan.
Rather than presenting Carlos as a lone Jackall, mysterious assassin of popular imagination, the film shows him and his friends as another equivalent of the protest movements of the 1970s and the armed terrorist activities of organisations like the Red Brigade and the Baader-Meinhof? group.
How much more the full mini-series would show of Carlos’ activities and motivations, we don’t know. But, this is a portrait rather than a biography. There is a caution at the opening of the film that, while it is based on a true story, much of it (especially the writing of dialogue between official characters that was not the subject of record) is also a fiction.
Originally filmed as a television mini-series, the film version runs for half that length at 165 minutes.
DIARY OF A WIMPY KID: RODRICK RULES
(US, 2011, d. David Bowers)
For a favourable review of the two Wimpy Kid movies, you would need something written by a very tolerant and understanding parent or else a definitely-not-wimpy kid who identifies with the two brothers, especially older brother, Rodrick.
There is a tradition in American movies and television series that kids have to be outspoken (outspeaking their parents often enough), argumentative even bickering, and not afraid to tell their parents off (or else hide the truth from them or just plain lie). These films are strongly in that tradition.
Maybe Greg, the title’s wimpy kid, is a bit wimpish but, if he has anything to do with it, that won’t last long. His brother, Rodrick, must never have been wimpy. He dominates, does what he likes, manipulates his parents, picks on Greg and ridicules him. He is obnoxious personified. Greg often seems to be on the way to this life path and pattern. It is hard to find any redeeming features in them, even though Greg, rather begrudgingly does a good turn at the end but is really happy only when people respond favourably to him and his friend, Rowley, and their magic performance.
Actually, Rowley is much more of a wimpy kid, pudgy but friendly, earnest and extremely tolerant of how Greg treats him. We could have done with more of Rowley in each of the films.
Perhaps, you are drawing a conclusion that I am not fond of these films. You’re right.
FAST FIVE/ THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS FIVE
(US, 2011, d. Justin Lin)
Another sequel and the series is certainly vrooming. (And, if you wait during the final credits you will find a short trailer/teaser for Fast Six.)
There are speeding cars doing manoeuvres round a bus on a desert highway with the bus overturning and rolling and rolling. There is a robbery of flash cars from a moving train, a carrier vehicle crashing into the train, Paul Walker hanging on to the edge of the carrier as a narrow bridge is approaching, then he and Vin Diesel and a car do a Butch and Sundance very long leap into a river only to be surrounded by thugs. And that’s only the first twenty minutes!
Fans of the series will know the characters, Vin Diesel’s occasionally smiling taciturn Dom, Paul Walker’s smiling Brian O’ Connor, Jordana Brewster’s romantic side as Dom’s sister and Brian’s wife. In the past, they were in Tokyo and this time they are in Rio. Plenty (plenty) of moving postcards shots of the city and its beauty – and plenty of warning not to go into the barrios unless you are Vin and Paul. Even the crack US agent, Dwayne Johnson doing a tough impersonation of his professional wrestling name, The Rock, and his team find that they have to backtrack in the face of the gangs and their guns.
Joaquin de Alameida is Reyes, the Rio kingpin of drugs and deals who has, it seems, most of the police in his pocket. (I wonder what Brazilian director, Jose Padilo, maker of the two Elite Squad films thinks, about it with his very dim view of the Brazilian law enforcement agents.) Dwayne is after Vin and Paul. Vin and Paul are out to get Reyes. We don’t waste much time in watching the planning. We generally go straight into action. And, there are some twists – nice one at the end.
If Al Jolson had been writing this review, he would at this stage say, ‘You ain’t seen nuthin’ yet’. The last twenty minutes are much more oomphy than the first twenty. How they filmed it, I don’t know, but it looks like a real chase with umpteen cars or more smashing their way through the streets of Rio.
The fans, despite the fact that there have been four fast and furious films already, will certainly not be disappointed. Nor will the producers because it seems there are more than enough fans out there to pay up – and ensure Fast Six.
FROM TIME TO TIME
(UK, 2009, d. Julian Fellowes)
1944 seems to have been an unusual year for some British children if films are to be believed. Some of them went into cupboards and entered Narnia. At the pictures, they might have gone to see Margaret O’ Brien and Charles Laughton in The Canterville Ghost, where a little girl meets a ghost in a stately English home. In From Time to Time, we are back in a stately home, back in 1944, and a young boy finds that he can move from 1944 back to 1809, see what was happening in the house back then – and he could be seen by some of the characters (good) but not by others (several of them bad).
Filmgoers may associate writer Julian Fellowes with his Oscar-winning script for Gosford Park (another stately home) and know that he has written Young Victoria and the stage version for Mary Poppins. With Maggie Smith as the star of the film, this one might be thought of as a film for adults. But, it is much more a film for younger audiences which their parents might enjoy.
Though, having said that, it might be noted that the film is very British, particularly British in look and sound, and may seem quite remote to younger audiences from other countries. (But, if they think Narnia, they may readily accept it.)
Just before Christmas 1944, 14 year old Tolly goes to stay with his grandmother. Tolly is played by Alex Etal (who was the little boy who saw the saints in Danny Boyle’s Millions.) While there are rations and coupons, life is not altogether unpleasant, though Tolly is resisting the idea that his soldier father might have been killed in action. Gran can be rather starchy, even condescending (in the Maggie Smith vein). Tolly listens to stories about the history of the house from the very genial groundskeeper (Timothy Spall) and the kindly housekeeper (Pauline Collins). Then, suddenly, he is in the stories of the past, opening a door from the muted drab colour of the war period into the bright colour and vitality of the Regency era. He can move instantly from one period to the other – with a little time travel mystery involving a torch that Tolly leaves in the past to help an ancestor of the groundskeeper – and then finds it in a cupboard of old relics.
So, From Time to Time is to be understood literally. Tolly befriends a blind girl and her African former slave boy, Jacob, and learns of his arrogant ancestor, Sefton, and his extravagant Dutch mother and the stern majordomo. There is a crisis when the mother’s jewels are stolen and then the house is engulfed in fire.
Without wanting to spoil the ending, it is probably best to say that it is sad but upbeat – an affirmation of stiff upper lip Britishness.
The film is based on the second of a series of novels from the 1950s, The Green Knowe novels by Lucy M. Boston which Fellowes loved when he was young. He has created the stern atmosphere of the war and obviously relished the colour, decor and costumes of the 19th century.
The film entertains but it may be too reserved in its style for many of today’s audiences.
THE HANGOVER PART 2
(US, 2011, d. Todd Phillips)
Not a sequel, the title declares, it is just part 2 where, as the characters keep reminding us, it is happening all over again. But, this time in Bangkok.
We know what to expect and, according to the huge box office returns during the first week of release, millions were keyed up expecting it.
One of the main features of the original Hangover was that, despite its raucous humour, language and episodes, it was able to be funny about it all and draw in its viewers, maybe despite themselves (which was certainly the case with this reviewer). So, that something to draw us in and share the humour was what I was expecting. But, I didn’t find it. Yes, a couple of laughs, but this time the central characters seemed more crass than before. Admittedly, they were given some lines to make them sound a bit better at the end, but not enough, and they didn’t really ring true. The trouble with the missing humour and human touch is that the characters and situations seem more tiresome and, often, irritating.
Bradley Cooper can do charm in other films but here he is basically a self-centred lout at heart who is responsible for starting the mayhem – and when he gets shot in the arm, I was all for the gangsters who were firing and, when he was being beaten by the Buddhist monk with a large bamboo rod for breaking the silence in the monastery, there was a temptation to draw on the immortal words of the Bloke in C.J.Dennis’ classic poem-yarn, The Sentimental Bloke, ‘Put in the boot...!’.
Zach Galifianakis can do dim-witted funny, which is what he is required to do here. There is some suspense and humour in wondering what terrible gaffe he is going to do next. But, without the more subtle underlying humour, he comes off as an annoying dolt (which he is to the characters in the film most of the time).
I had a few hopes for dentist Stu (Ed Helms) the bridegroom last time. It seems that a quickie marriage in Las Vegas was a big mistake (and it was) so now, for travelogue and location purposes (and Thailand does come off touristically well during most of the film – forget the dingy clubs), he is engaged to a Thai girl. Hence the trip. Hence the night out. Hence the hangover – and re-meeting Ken Jeong’s Mr Chow who for some of the film was, relievedly, dead. But, no such luck... There is also the brother of the bride, Teddy (Mason Lee, the son of Ang Lee for the record) a sixteen year old medical and musical genius studying at Stanford who, for no apparent reason except for a plot device to find him, loses a finger. Which seemed more than unnecessary and drastic. He is also hung over. He seems a nice chap and deserves a better fate.
The Paul Giamatti turns up as an international gangster – and most will enjoy the plot twist that he unexpectedly provides.
The scenery is wonderful but, as mentioned, there is a lot of time in some of the less salubrious parts of Bangkok. Speaking of salubrious, who should turn up to sing the final song! Mike Tyson.
Obviously, a lot of people will enjoy this hangover episode, but it relies too much on its original appeal and not enough on doing something better with it. Perhaps one reviewer was right: if you would like a laugh like this, watch the original again.
HERE I AM
(Australia, 2011, d. Beck Cole)
The I of the title is Karen Burden. She is a young aboriginal woman from Adelaide, has a history of drug dependence, has been in prison and has a daughter that she has not seen for three years. The film opens with her leaving prison and traces what she does and what happens to her in the month of her parole supervision.
With the release of Mad Bastards, Australian audiences have had the opportunity to respond to a story about an aboriginal man who has deserted his wife and son, spent time in prison, who decides to travel north from Perth and find his son. The boy is being cared for by his wife’s father, the local policeman. We are invited to share the life of a man who has experienced hard times, much of it his own fault. We are asked to share his re-awakening concern for his son and his being a father.
Here I Am has many parallels with Mad Bastards: parent, separation, fault and responsibility, the grandparent brining up the child, the desire for a new start and to see the child again. But, this film offers a woman’s point of view.
In fact, most of the principal film-makers are woman. The writer-director, making her first feature, is Beck Cole. Karen is played by Shai Pittman. Much of the success of the film is due to Pittman’s strong screen presence, a woman who has the potential to be liked despite her flaws. She is in every scene. We are apprehensive that she is going to fail again. We watch her make more mistakes. But we cannot doubt her great desire to see her little daughter. The scene where they do meet under kind supervision but with the hostility of the grandmother and an accident requiring time in hospital has its moving moments.
Another strength of the film is the presence of well-known and admired activist Marcia Langton as Karen’s mother. She is a reformed alcoholic who has become the sternest of women, seemingly unforgiving and rearing the little girl.
Karen has a room in a women’s shelter in Port Adelaide. The characters who live there are well drawn, move beyond the stereotypes of women in trouble, even though they share many characteristics of the stereotype. We come to know their stories better.
Men seem to be mostly absent from the film. There is a white man who picks up Karen at a pub. There are two sympathetic aboriginal men, one of whom befriends Karen, speaks honestly to her and could be around when she finds her feet.
There is depth of feeling underlying this film. The naturalistic photography becomes poetic at times with the Port Adelaide skylines, with Warwick Thornton (Beck Cole’s husband and director of Samson and Delilah) as director of photography. We feel we have walked the streets with Karen at the opening of the film. We have lived at the shelter. We get to know the neighbourhood, the cemetery, and feel that we begin to understand these characters well – although some of the performances are awkward and some delivery sounds amateurish but most of us would be prepared to make allowances and respond to the meaning and challenges of the film.
HOODWINKED TOO! THE BATTLE BETWEEN HOOD AND EVIL
(US, 2011, d. Mike Disa)
Like the original, this is a hit and miss affair – and many will not be sorry if they miss it.
The idea in the original was to update some fairy tale characters and involve them in a puzzle which they had to solve by brains (well, not all of the characters are blessed in this particular area) or by brawn, with some magic thrown in. Working on the Red Riding Hood Story in Hoodwinked, Red became a heroine with some mean martial arts moves. Granny was a wise old woman who, in the parlance, was not averse to kicking ass.
The setting is a strange mixture of the past and the present, much of the latter part of this sequel taking place downtown in a modern city, streets and skyscrapers.
The screenplay is not particularly witty. The play on words in the sub-title is probably the best joke. The plot is basic, though there is a twist when (spoiler!), the twee little Hansel and Gretel, imprisoned in the gingerbread house by the wicked witch, Verushka, are the target for rescue by Red, Granny and the dumb Big Bad Wolf, under the guidance of Nicky Flippers, a frog in command of a special fairyland rescue squad. Then Hansel and Gretel turn into a neo-Nazi twosome bent on fascist rule and demolition with heavy Cherman accents and all.
The voice cast has many stars who give it their best, especially Glenn Close (as before) as the feisty Granny. Joan Cusack is effective as Verushka. Patrick Warburton is again the Wolf and David Ogden Stiers is Nicky Flippers. There is some amusement from Martin Short’s flamboyant, yodelling Kirk. Hayden Panettierre is functional as Red.
Maybe the kids will respond to some of the action, parents probably not.
(Spain, 2010, d. Guillem Morales)
For those who enjoy atmospheric thrillers, suspense, plot twists and some shocks (and are not necessarily too worried about characters’ behaviour that puts them in peril when they should have used more common sense), then this should be quite a satisfying entertainment.
With the title focusing on Julia’s eyes, audiences can expect a film about blindness and terror. And this is precisely what we get. We go right into it with Julia’s twin sister, Sara, blind from an eye degenerative disease, being terrorised and killing herself. Julia’s eyes are also deteriorating and she collapses at the very time of her sister’s death. She hurries to help but finds Sara dead – and becomes determined, no, obsessed, in trying to find out what happened to her sister. And this, despite the hesitations of her loving husband who is particularly concerned that stress could bring about a hastening of her sight loss.
The audience knows that there was someone present when Sara killed herself but we have no idea who. Julia’s search leads her only part of the way. She is helped by some of Sara’s friendly, but mysterious neighbours (an elderly man and his reclusive daughter and an elderly blind woman) add to her suspicions.
The suspense in the first part of the film is not knowing who the unknown stalker is and if and/or when he will strike at Julia.
Julia undergoes an operation which seems to be successful, a transplant (which also offers a twist on who is the donor and how), but has to keep her bandage on for two weeks to avoid any further damage to her eyes. She opts (bad move) to go to her sister’s house, saying that she knows it well and can feel her way around instead of staying in the safety of the hospital. She is assigned a carer, Ivan, who is at her beck and call, considerate and kind and on whom she comes to depend.
The suspense in the latter part of the film is that Julia knows and now we know who the attacker is and whether she can cope or not. Resisting the temptation to mention some of the effectively surprising plot twists, suffice it to say that there are chases, menaces and knives – and in the dark.
One advertising blurb praises the film’s originality. That is not quite right – and it would seem that the film is not claiming much originality. Rather, it draws on several well-known thrillers with blind characters like Mia Farrow in Blind Terror and, especially, Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark. There are also some nods to Rear Window. Which means that the film places itself in a respectable (Hitchcockian some have said) tradition of intriguing audiences with familiar thriller conventions. It does its job well.
LITTLE WHITE LIES
(France, 2010, d. Guillaume Canet)
French writers and directors seem to have an inbuilt talent for writing and directing films about families and tensions in relationships. They dramatise these not so much in melodramatic encounters and crises (though they can do that too) but in the ordinary things of life. The premiss of this quite long drama (almost two and a half hours) about families and friends is that in the ordinariness of life, we are not always truthful to ourselves or to others. We avoid responsibilities or hurt others with little white lies. We also tell more than little white lies to ourselves which evolve into considerable self-deception, sometimes with dire consequences. Hence the title of the film.
During the opening credits we see a young man on a motor bike riding through Paris streets and suddenly hit by a lorry. He is hospitalised with severe injuries. A group of close friends come to visit him. But, it is summer and northern hemisphere vacation time. Should they go on their planned holiday or stay in Paris to be with their friend?
We know that they will go on holidays but the scene in which they debate whether they should go or not, that their friend will be unconscious because of surgery and recuperation, and rationalising their going means the beginning of a new round of little white lies.
Much of the film shows the group on holidays by the sea out from Bordeaux. They know each other well and have been there before. For a while, we and they are happy in the sun and in the water.
But, we know it can’t last. We begin to be very aware of the potential for clash. In fact, in one sequence before they go, we see the senior friend, Max, a restaurateur and owner of the holiday house (Francois Cluzet) being massaged by his physiotherapist, Vincent, and then dining with him while Vincent talks about his affection for Max, declaring he is not gay, is married and Max is his son’s godfather. But, this encounter rankles with Max and the close proximity of Max and his wife with Vincent and his wife and son on the holiday leads to quite some outbursts, especially from a prickly Max prone to blurt out hurtful remarks who, whether he realises it or not, is an ambitious and controlling man. He has a very patient wife who is at pains to help him see what is happening despite her annoyance with him.
Others in the group have relationship problems which also come to the fore. Eric (Gilles Lellouche) is an actor who more than fancies himself as a ladies’ man and is being ditched by his latest, an opera singer. Marie (Marion Cotillard) loves the injured man but has a dread of commitment and finds herself, most unwillingly, having to make a commitment choice to her latest boyfriend, a very sympathetic singer. Antoine (Laurent Lafitte) has the blues because his long-standing girlfriend has broken contact and is planning to get married, but not to Antoine.
Plenty of problems which audiences may or may not be able to identify with but will surely recognise. It is a pity but necessary, of course, for the drama, that so many of these characters are not particularly pleasant people in their own unpleasant ways.
Some locals become part of the group, especially the old oyster fisherman who has known Max since he was a boy and knows the group well – and is in a position at the end of the film to challenge them all, which he does.
The film was written and directed by actor Guillaume Canet who directed the French adaptation of Harlan Coben’s Tell No One. He has taken on quite a large though intimate canvas here. He does it well but there is always that problem of how interested we really are in some, or all, of the characters and their sorting out their problems.
MRS CAREY’ S CONCERT
(Australia, 2010, d. Bob Connolly and Sophie Raymond)
A film about music. But, importantly, a film about education.
Bob Connolly has directed only six documentaries over a period of almost thirty years. The two from the 1980s were filmed in Papua New Guinea. His last film, 2001, was also a music film, Facing the Music (Austalian Catholic Film Office winner for 2001). Connolly has photographed Mrs Carey’ s Concert and co-director, Sophie Raymond, was responsible for the sound.
The school at the centre of the film is now called MLC College. Formerly it was Methodist Ladies College, in the Sydney suburb of Burwood, but when the Methodist Church became part of the Uniting Church of Australia in 1977, the school’s name retained the initials for its title. It is a Uniting Church school. There are 1200 students and the film takes us into the well-staffed Music School of the college.
Mrs Carey grew up in country New South Wales without any benefit of music education at school. It was at the Conservatorium that she heard Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion, a life-transforming experience leading to a realisation of what could be accomplished and communicated by team collaboration. In her work at MLC, she produces an annual concert at the Sydney Opera House that involves the whole school in one way or another (in this film everybody participating in playing and singing the march from Aida).
This means that there is plenty of music to delight music lovers, from Bach to Brahms to Ravel, with some music composed by the staff as well. The music is orchestral but with some soloists, especially violinists. One girl, Emily Sun, is chosen to perform a featured solo. We are taken into classes, rehearsals, the climax with the concert itself and Emily’s star turn as well as the special pieces conducted by different members of the staff.
But, the film is more about Mrs Carey’ s education styles than her concert.
Mrs Carey is a strong woman who does not always suffer fools gladly. But, she is also sensitive and exercises tough love. We see it throughout the film in her insights into Emily, her coaxing some leadership qualities from her, her encouraging her to express her feelings, something difficult with Emily’s background of Chinese emotional reticence, her attempts to help her become more responsible, her offering her a challenge 12 weeks before the concert with a new piece to learn.
The directors were given considerable access to staff and students over a period of more than a year, editing the film into stages of two month intervals before the concert. We are privy to Mrs Carey’ s reflections, staff discussions, interviews with students. We are privy to Emily’s acknowledging that she could run the risk of ruining everything by poor behaviour but we sense also her dedication to her music, her memory of her musician father, killed in an accident when she was young – and at the end we meet her mother. We also note how many students of Asian origin are students at the school.
While Emily’s struggles with her challenges might have offered sufficient opportunity for some drama, we are also introduced to problem student, Iris, who is disruptive, sometimes outspoken, sometimes passive aggressive, who is intelligent, (rightly) finds much of the rehearsal tedious for those who are not fully involved. She offers an interesting case study of someone who is bright, obnoxious and seemingly her own person and not open to teacherly persuasion.
We also get glimpses of several other students and their personalities or problems as well as getting to know, briefly, the music school staff.
Mrs Carey can get flustered, sometimes hesitating or doubting but still a determined woman who sees the potential for talent, achievement and self-esteem in the students to whom she undoubtedly dedicated.
(France, 2009, d. Jacques Perrin, Jacques Cluzaud)
This is a documentary where the audience is invited to sit back, gaze and contemplate. The cinematography is beautiful, finely lit even in the depths of the sea. The directors made the parallel documentary on birds, Winged Migration, and Jacques Perrin produced the fascinating contemplation of our world, Microcosmos.
That said, Oceans is something of a strange film. There is no narrative thread. There is no particular logic as to why one scene follows another. It is more like a moving picture jigsaw showing the life that dwells (generally) under water. There is a commentary (which on the whole does not need to be listened to) which identifies some of the extraordinary creatures we are looking at in close-up or names some of the places where filming is being done. It is interesting to hear some of the names but most of us would not pass a test remembering them as we left the theatre. A personal preference would have been not to listen to the commentary, though it is quietly and smoothly spoken by Pierce Brosnan for the English version, but just look and go with the flow of the musical score – which, with its lulls and its poundings, provides some kind of indications for our responses.
There are certainly some exquisite and exotic creatures whom we never see except in films like this. Some look prehistoric (the dugong and some fish whose shapes, colours, extensions look straight out of computer generated fantasies). One can see why the sea lions survive - they are so lazy, placid and restful that nothing much disturbs them. While nature on earth is red in tooth and claw, under the water and over the water there is no blood but plenty of fish eat fish and swooping birds beaking fish (and baby turtles), the eternal food chain.
One wonders during the film how the photographers managed to be close to whales as the surfaced and rose so high, follow schools of leaping dolphins, be among the ravenous birds swooping below the surface, and not disturb the wonderful shoals of fish or the platoons of military crabs. While most patrons anticipating the appearance of a word which means credits are beginning and they can’t get away from what they have been contemplating fast enough, for those who stay, there are more amazing shots: of the photographers and their range of cameras as they film close to the fish. So, that is how it was done.
As for any explanations of what oceans are, despite Mr Brosnan’s asking us, there are no real answers, very little science for us to chew over and, what seems rather fatuous after the mysteries that we have been made privy to, he suggests that the real question is really, ‘who are we’. I don’t think so.
Magnificence for the eyes – bypass the commentary.
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES
(US, 2011, d. Rob Marshall)
Who would have thought eight years ago that we would still be seeing Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, the most oddball pirate in screen history? But, he entered into the cinema audience consciousness and, judging by the final scenes of this episode and a tantalising 20 seconds with Penelope Cruz after the final credits, he looks ready to set sail for a fifth Pirates movie.
This one is more straightforwardly piratical than the previous outings – and, perhaps the better for it. No monsters and Davy Jones Locker or ghosts returning from the dead. This is more in the Treasure Island vein, journeys to find a particular treasure lost at the Fountain of Life. In fact, there are three ships in pursuit: the Spanish, an English expedition captained by Barbossa who shows no signs or indications of having been dead before, and an ambitious galleon with Blackbeard.
At the press preview, there was a power surge and we had to wait fifteen minutes for the lamp to cool before setting sail again. A resident wit who fancies his humorous comments on movies did a run through of the predictability of all the plot elements. Actually, he turned out to be quite wrong. You may think some events will happen, and some of them do, but not in the way we might have expected.
The opening sets a rollicking tone, set in London where Jack Sparrow impersonates a judge to orchestrate a plan to free fellow pirate, Gibbs, from the gallows. All goes well – for a time. Jack is hauled before the king (a fey parody by Richard Griffiths) who wants to get his hands on the Fountain of Life – and who has a captain and a ship commissioned: Captain Barbossa himself trying to become respectable. Audiences should be alert to Judi Dench’s amusing thirty second appearance as a society lady in a carriage.
Jack encounters his past love Angelica (a fiery Penelope Cruz) but is shanghaied and finds himself on Blackbeard’s ship, inciting a mutiny claiming that Blackbeard is not on board. Actually, Blackbeard was having some introverted time and, refreshed, appears again as a cruelly greedy pirate king (and Ian Mc Shane obviously relishes playing the role).
They do get to the island of the Fountain of Youth (with Hawaiian locations). There are all kinds of adventures and mix-ups with Jack, Barbossa, Angelica, Blackbeard and the Spanish, as well as some long sequences with mermaids who are a mixture of sirens and vampires.
We can’t say all’s well that ends well, because there are too many advance notices that the ending is temporary and there will be more to come. With Johnny Depp afire as Jack, both with throwaway lines and cowardly courage, with Barbossa re-invigorated and Angelica given plenty of motivation to make a comeback, audience enjoyment continues...
(Australia, 2011, d. Julia Leigh)
This version of a sleeping beauty is no fairytale. In fact, though Lucy, the central character, is reassured that while she is asleep, she will not dream, her waking hours become something of a nightmare. She might have even more frightening nightmares if she could see what we see happening to her while she sleeps.
Sleeping Beauty was screened in competition in Cannes in 2011. Because of the sexual elements, nudity and some gross behaviour by some ageing clients, controversy was assured. Many praised the film. Others found it either boring or offensive or both. It has been described as an erotic film. One reviewer, with some perception, thought it an anti-erotic film.
This is one of those films which are not done justice by simply asking what it is about. A lot of questions about ‘how’ it is presented is more to the point. It is in the vein, though stories and emphases on exploiting of men and women are quite different, of Eyes Wide Shut, In the Cut, The Book of Revelation. Audiences uncomfortable with more open, franker and sometimes explicit explorations of sensuality and sexuality will not like the film.
However, as with many psychological film case studies, we are taken into the psyches of characters, becoming more aware of their problems even if we do not quite understand or sympathise. (Reviewers not sympathetic have found the psychological dimension here lacking or found it ‘twaddle’.)
In the middle of the film, it seemed not so much interesting as intriguing. Then one of the elderly clients (played by veteran Peter Carroll) offers a short story in close-up, pausing the action, asking the audience to think about life, turning thirty and the enthusiasm of then contrasting with the impotence of age. It would be a pity to consider this as a distraction or as dull – it offers a basis for the culmination of the film.
The central character, Lucy, is something of an enigma and remains so, even though we are offered all kinds of tantalising clues to her attitudes and behaviour. She is played by Emily Browning who does create this enigma quite effectively even though she is usually not particularly likeable. Lucy studies, takes part in laboratory tests (deep swallowing), works in a cafe as well as an office and boards with her sister whose partner dislikes her and wants her out. She takes a phone call from her mother describing her as alcoholic.
Lucy is quite promiscuous, picking up men and leading them on in bars, more caring of a drug-addict friend whom she visits regularly, but not really exhibiting any sign of a moral compass. She is both passive and sometimes proactive in her choices. When she takes some cocaine, her reply is simply. ‘Why not?’. It is the same with some of her sexual behaviour. While she shrugs with a ‘Why not?’, it seems never to have occurred to ask why she says yes.
When she is employed as a freelance sex-object wine waiter in a mansion that caters for rich, elderly customers, meals served by scantily clad young women, she is being auditioned by the elegant madam, Clara (Rachael Blake, a wicked witch with her potions) for a specialty of the establishment: sleeping beauty, where she sleeps and has no knowledge of what these ageing men do to her. (Emily Browning is particularly convincing in persuading us that she is asleep in these scenes.) While Lucy, professionally called Sara, is beautiful and seems to sail through this kind of life, it is the scenes of the old men and their sexual predation that offers the ethical if not moral compass. A scene with veteran Chris Haywood offers an epitome of the attitudes of men who are self-absorbed, abusive of women in speech and action and express themselves with a violent ruthlessness.
Sara/ Lucy does wake up at the end with an experience of shock and dismay. But the film has one more short scene which does not draw explicit conclusions and leaves the audience to ponder what they have felt and thought.
(Canda, 2011, d. Duncan Jones)
Fans of intelligent thrillers will like this one.
When Captain Colter Stevens wakes on a train to Chicago and finds that his travelling companion calls him Sean and says he is a teacher, he is more than bewildered because he knows he has been serving as a helicopter pilot in Afghanistan. After some attempts at grappling with what is happening to him until there is a mighty explosion, he wakes again, this time in a special pod, discovering he is the subject of an experiment in brain control. He has been made to identify with a teacher on the train and go back into the train to discover what caused the explosion, where the bomb was situated and who triggered the device.
So, back he goes, again and again and again. Movie buffs know what the groundhog day repetition is like, everyone else the same on the same day while the protagonist retains what he has learnt from each preceding visit to the past.
While the framework of the plot is science-fiction, science-fantasy, the captain’s many attempts to find out what has gone on are like a detective story. He shows great ingenuity after a number of re-visits, especially since he has a window of eight minutes only each time. This time is based on how much the memory of a dying man retains (like an afterglow when a light has been turned off, so the inventor of this process claims). The procedure is called Source Code.
Jake Gyllenhaal does a good job of creating a puzzled man who rises to the occasion of the challenge (and experiencing the explosion a number of times). Michelle Monaghan is Christina who warms more and more each time she encounters Captain Stevens – especially as he uses his previous knowledge each time. Stevens’ contact on each return is Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), a by the book officer who is also a compassionate listener and concerned about Stevens’ mental and emotional health. The scientist behind the development of Source Code is played by Steven Wright.
Needless to say, the film builds up a serious amount of suspense, the audience wondering whether Stevens will find the bomb, identify the bomber and save the day. This involves encounters with a great number of passengers, many of them ordinary, if sometimes irritable, commuters. The action is tempered with some comic moments as well as some romantic moments.
The challenge of time travel films is the physics – and also the logic. Whatever happens at the end, there is a slight let down when you are wondering what really happened, whether it could have happened and how it could have happened. But, that’s the nature of the genre. So, it’s probably best to put relativity theory, other dimensions, parallel worlds to one side, and just get involved in the action and the psychological demands made on Stevens, his service in Afghanistan, his memories of what he did there. He also has a longing to be reconciled with his father.
The screenplay by Ben Ripley is quite ingenious. The film was directed by Duncan Jones whose first film ventured into something of the same themes though this time in a space travel situation, Moon. They say it is risky to go back to the same material for a second film, but Jones has been very successful with Source Code. (It is completely irrelevant, but many are pleased to know that Duncan Jones is the son of David Bowie.)
(US, 2011, d. Sean Mc Namara)
Both words in the title need to be kept in mind as we watch this rather noble-minded film.
The surfing is obvious. Bethany Hamilton and her whole family live in Hawaii and surfing is second nature to them all. From a little girl (and there are quite a number of home movie clips during the final credits) Bethany has excelled in surfing skills.
The soul takes us into the religious beliefs and practices of the Hamilton’s. They are quite explicit in their Gospel-church faith (and much less reticent in expressing it than many members of mainstream churches). They attend church, they sing with zest, they believe in a ministry of service to others. In fact, there is a final credit of thanks to Jesus Christ – and, right at the end, Jesus gets another thanks. (This type of religion and heart on the sleeve may not appeal to more heady, less emotional people, but it would be a pity if the Hamilton faith was not given respect by reviewers and audiences.)
Most people intending to see Soul Surfer probably know that one morning, enjoying the surf with friends, Bethany was suddenly attacked by a shark and lost one of her arms completely. This sequence is shown briefly and without much close-up but it is still a jolt and a shock. Fortunately, friends were able to contact the hospital and, though Bethany lost a lot of blood, doctors were able to help her and stitch the wound almost at shoulder level.
Though quite an exuberant young girl, Bethany was calm and stoic during her ordeal. Subsequently, her main concern was whether she could surf again or not. The second part of the film shows her determination, her continued attempts and failures, her ultimate success followed by a strict and gruelling exercise regime and going back into competition.
Bethany was aided immensely by her parents and the coaching of her father.
AnnaSophia? Robb gives a vigorous performance as Bethany. Denis Quaid and Helen Hunt portray her parents.
There is plenty of surfing and giant waves for fans. But, given Bethany’s experience and courage, the film is also highly inspirational and motivational, explicitly so. It might give a strong boost to young people who might have had similar accidents and difficulties to overcome.
(Australia, 2011, d. Carlo Ledesma)
The tunnel (or tunnels) in question are those below the stations and tracks in Sydney’s underground system, specifically St James station. These tunnels can be the opportunity for scary movies like Death Train, Creep, The Escape or even The Taking of Pelham 123 films. And, so they are here.
This film was a collective enterprise of backers buying shares for a small budget production. It was also delivered to audiences on-line as well as screened on Foxtel. (For those watching it at home, a recommendation is to turn off the lights and watch it in the dark – you will really be sharing the experience of the characters underground, their sense of menace and of fear.)
It begins like a television documentary with a TV announcer introducing a current affairs item about the development of Sydney’s water supply through a lake in the underground. We are then told that the project was mysteriously dropped and not talked about at all. A television crew is introduced via some home movies and banter and jokes which is a good way of establishing the central characters. They begin to interview a homeless man who has been in the tunnels but he weeps and rushes away. At this stage, the film becomes a reconstruction of events with two of the participants serving as talking head interviewees explaining what happened as their edited footage is shown.
Although we have been alerted by the opening with the recording of an emergency call from a station, it is now that the real purpose of the film becomes clear. With technology nods (and more) to the handheld cameras and style of The Blair Witch Project, the film is one of those fictions dressed up as fact, an account of some paranormal activity.
The real model for The Tunnel is Rec, its sequel Rec 2 and the American adaptation, Quarantine. In these films, we have a television crew, journalist and camera man going into a building and recording the weird and brutal events they encounter. The TV crew offer a basic credibility that cameras would be in these situations and filming. (And the actual camera man for the film plays the fictional camera man.) The Tunnel also has a producer and a sound engineer in its crew. There is a combination of ordinary lighting, but much of the film is night camera work, green, blurry and eerie.
There is a fair amount of repetition in the early part of the film as the crew explore the underground. Then mysterious things happen and one member disappears. Should they search for him without extra help? Of course not. But they do – and, of course, things get worse. There is a certain plausibility, however, for the audiences as the journalist and the cameraman are continually intercut offering their narrative in close-up. We know they have survived. But, how? And what or who was down there?
So, not a bad Australian contribution to the horror pseudo-documentary genre. (And, we keep asking, uncomfortably curious, what are those tunnels like in reality!)
WATER FOR ELEPHANTS
(US, 2011, d. Francis Lawrence)
This morning a Melbourne reviewer, who obviously had forgotten to take his happy pill, gave Water for Elephants no stars out of five and vented a bit of spleen throughout his review, trying to prove it should not get any stars. This afternoon, the group behind me in the cinema shed some tears, compared it favourably to the book by Sara Gruen, one declaring the film was excellent.
So, somewhere in between.
While the film opens in the present with a very old man standing in the rain watching the circus gear being packed up, and then narrating his story to the manager of the circus, and hoping to get a job instead of going back to his nursing home, the main story is one from the Great Depression, 1931. Hal Holbrook brings quite some dignity to the old man.
As he tells his story (which leads us to expect a circus disaster), his voice changes into that of his younger self, Jacob, the son of Polish migrants who is studying at Cornell to be a vet. He is forced to cut short his studies when his parents die in an accident and he hops a train which belongs to the Benzini Brothers Circus.
This is a circus story (which certainly doesn’t paint the circus fraternity as a nice and welcoming community) but it is quite interesting as it takes us into that community and the life and work demanded to keep the show going. And, in the Depression, times are tough, audiences can be scarce, and there is the pressure of selling tickets as well as finding new acts.
Jacob is almost thrown out but proves his worth with his veterinary knowledge. While he does the most menial jobs at first, when the circus acquires an elephant, he not only carries the water for Rosie the elephant but he is its keeper and trainer. The rider of the elephant is Marlena, the wife of the circus owner and manager, August. And, yes, you are not wrong. There will be emotional complications.
The film depends very much on the presence and performance by Robert Pattinson. His Twilight fans will have no difficulty is responding well to him. Those who find his undead Edward Cullen too passively pale and morose will cheer up to find that Water for Elephants can depend on him after all. It’s a pleasantly standard performance but it is something of a relief to see that there is a life for Pattinson after Edward (despite his vampiric immortality) and this is a boost to Pattinson’s career. Actually, he laughs a lot, perhaps grins too often, but, with a short back and sides, and getting stuck into his elephant care, he presents a strong enough character.
He has to because he is up against August, the circus owner, who is ambitious, desperate, cruel and prone to fly off the handle rather murderously even though he then can repent and present a surface of charm. He is played by Christoph Waltz who won the Oscar and a myriad other awards for his performance as Landa in Inglourious Basterds and then the villain in The Green Hornet. He is also due as Cardinal Richelieu in the 2011 version of The Three Musketeers. He does screen villains who can chill you despite the sometimes front of urbanity.
Marlena is Reese Witherspoon who has a story to explain why she is married to August and the hold he has over her.
The circus disaster does come at the end but is presented in a rather matter of fact way rather than as a big and sensational disaster.
Water for Elephants does deserve some stars – it is easy and popular entertainment,
X MEN: FIRST CLASS
(US, 2011, d. Matthew Vaughan)
At last what really happened during the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 has been revealed, the mastermind behind the set-up, the action that stopped a nuclear war and the intervention of special agents.
Well, no, not exactly. This is the core plot for this prequel to the X Men series.It’s intrigues and derring-do dreamed up by the screenwriters. But, it is not a bad conspiracy theory if you believe in mutants amongst us – and after four X Men films, don’t we all!
Actually, this is quite an enjoyable action show – and, if I saw it first, then I would be tempted to watch the whole series.
Maybe not everyone was wondering what Professor Xavier was like when he was young or whether Erik Lensherr was a nice young lad or not, but for those who were (as well as for the rest of us), here are some interesting answers. Interesting is not exactly the right word because Charles Xavier was a pampered young man who studied at Oxford and received a Doctorate. Nothing particularly adventurous here. On the other hand, Erik’s life takes us into a concentration camp, separation from his parents, an exhibition of his powers to move a metal gate and the sadistic behaviour of the camp doctor who is fascinated by gene power and superhuman mutants.
Erik as adult is on a mission to find out where the doctor is, only to discover he is a world domination criminal (in the Bond series’ vein), not so easy to wreak revenge on. In the meantime, the CIA discover some mutants and special agent Moira Mc Taggart enlists the aid of Charles Xavier. They recruit a number of other mutants and train them to bring their various talents to bear on Sebastian Shaw, the Nazi villain. This requires them to save the US in the aforesaid Missiles of October crisis.
There are plenty of complications along the way, especially the recruiting of Erik and ensuring his participation in the training. However, we do learn how he and the Professor were friends, parted ways and he became Magneto, luring away some of the Professor’s disciples. We also learn how the Professor came to be in a wheelchair who offers a tribute to Patrick Stewart when he remarks that he would probably go bald soon.
As an entertainment, it all keeps moving fast – director Matthew Vaughan (of the questionable Kick Ass) knows how to make an enjoyable film, both serious (a film starting in a concentration camp is not entirely light-hearted) and comic (Hugh Jackman makes the most of his 30 second cameo refusing to be recruited).
The casting is interesting in view of the previous films and the later incarnations of the mutants. Scot James Mc Avoy and Irish Michael Fassbender are sound serious actors and bring Charles and Erik to life. Amongst the others are American Jennifer Lawrence as Raven, English Nicholas Hoult as Hank/Beast and English Jason Flemyng as Azazael. Australian Rose Byrne is a sympathetic Moira. And, enjoying himself immensely as a snarling villain – unrecognizable at first as the German-speaking doctor – is Kevin Bacon.
Plenty of action, plenty of stunts, plenty of different locations – and more than plenty of plot. With the humans turning against the mutants, perhaps the writers could be encouraged to do one more X Men with this cast and find a world crisis that they could solve. The 70s and Vietnam suggest themselves. Or, with some make-up, they could assist in the Berlin Wall coming down or the collapse of the Soviet Union.