FILM REVIEWS MARCH 2010
ALICE IN WONDERLAND
ANONYMA: A WOMAN IN BERLIN
BATTLE FOR TERRA
FATHER OF MY CHILDREN, The (LE PERE DE MES ENFANTS)
FROM PARIS WITH LOVE
PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLYMPIANS. THE LIGHTNING THIEF
SECRETO DE SUS OJOS, El (THE SECRET OF HIS EYES)
UP IN THE AIR
WINTER IN WARTIME (OORLOGSWINTER)
WOLF MAN, The
YOUTH IN REVOLT
ALICE IN WONDERLAND
(UK. 2010, d. Tim Burton)
And filmed in 3D.
Tim Burton, who is fascinated by the unusual, the bizarre and the imaginative, and his screenwriter Linda Woolverton (who worked on screenplays for Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King) have tried to be creatively different with this new version of Lewis Carroll's stories which have been filmed so often.
We first meet a six year old Alice who has nightmares, falling down the hole, following the White Rabbit and encountering the familiar characters, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Mad Hatter, March Hare, Doormouse and Cheshire Cat, and, of course, the Queens.
Now she is 19 and, at a lavish Victorian garden party, is proposed to by a silly-ass wealthy young man. She needs some moments to think – and there is the White Rabbit and down the hole she goes again. She is now in Underland (she had made a mistake before, hearing it as Wonderland) and Tim Burton territory it is, and looks it with its graphic design and colours, its sense of mystery and eerieness, and the old characters are here again, some enhanced by CGI (like Helena Bonham Carter's Red Queen yelling 'off with his head'), or designed as eccentric (like Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter – after all Tim Burton has put him on screen bizarrely as Edward Scissorhands, Willy Wonka and Sweeney Todd) or looking storybook fey (like Anne Hathaway as the White Queen).
The voices of the characters are excellent, very British: Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat, Alan Rickman as the blue caterpillar, Absolem, Timothy Spall as the Beagle, Michael Sheen as the White Rabbit, Barbara Windsor as the Doormouse and some sinister words from Christopher Lee as the Jabberwocky.
Speaking of the Jabberwocky, the plot is a kind of quest to destroy it on frabjous day. And Alice is meant to be the champion of the White Queen to kill it. More than a touch of dungeons and dragons.
Many of the well-loved stories from Carroll's books are enjoyably staged and performed. The finale of executions, white and red card/guards fighting and Alice's doing a St George and Joan of Arc against the Jabberwocky are impressively presented (and may upset some younger audiences because of their vividness).
Mia Wasikowski is a strong and determined 19 year old Alice.
ANONYMA: A WOMAN IN BERLIN
(Germany, 2008, d. Max Farberbock)
In 1959, an anonymous journalist published a memoir based on her experiences and those of other Berlin women during the final weeks of World War II and its immediate aftermath. It focused on the exploitation of the women at the hand of the victorious Russian military, on rape and continued sexual oppression. In the late 1950s, this was considered taboo material and the book was not re-published until recent years and the identity of the author remains anonymous.
This theme could become more important for films about war. Rape has been used as a weapon in African civil wars and made headlines in the 1990s with the wars in the Balkans. It is a subject that needs greater exposure since, in the past, nations have tended not to acknowledge this horrendous experience of war and the sufferings and humiliation of the women. The press kit for the film indicates that General Eisenhower had decreed before the D-Day? landing that anyone who committed rape would be executed. The first rape occurred six hours after the invasion.
Anonyma becomes a significant German film in its portrayal of this crucial period. Where the film makes a challenging point is that Anonyma and many of the other women portrayed were deeply imbued with Nazi faith and German destiny. An opening sequence of the Nazi glitterati at a party extolling the regime reminds us of the commitment to Hitler's ideals by many Germans.
The rest of this quite long film begins on April 26th 1945 with the women, children and the elderly of a typical street in Berlin, from a typical apartment block, are hiding in the basement from the advancing Russian troops. When they tentatively emerge, treated to some potatoes, it is clear that the Russian men, angry with the Germans who have oppressed them for four years and killed their loved ones and heady with the achievement of conquering Berlin, are going to take advantage of the women and exploit them. They are rough, even brutal men, many of them, not always following orders from their commanders.
Nina Hoss plays the anonymous journalist who returned from overseas appointments to be in Germany for its triumph and has farewelled her husband to the front. She is a strong personality and, while she is raped, she also allows herself to enter into a relationship with a more cultured officer. She supports the range of women who are allowed back into the apartments as well as secretly sheltering a frightened young woman. We see her writing up these experiences for her husband in some exercise books, writing about the detail of what happened day by day up to the surrender of Germany and the early weeks of uneasy peace. She also writes up her feelings and her ways of coping.
The film is worth seeing just to immerse oneself in the experience of the Berliners (ideologically unsympathetic as they are) in encountering the vanquishing Russians whom they despise but realising that they will have to collaborate with them to survive. We see the street fighting and battles, the arbitrary deaths, scavenging for food, the women terrified that the Russians will turn on them.
It would be important to compare this review with the perspectives of those written by women who will be disturbed by the content and empathise with the pain and suffering of the women.
BATTLE FOR TERRA
(US, 2008, d. Aristomenis Tsirbas)
Another animated film about another world and an invasion. This time it is the planet Terra and the invaders are Earth people who have a colonising and colonial attitude towards this planet as a refuge because Earth is collapsing. They have little or no regard for the residents of Terra and are prepared to conquer, even destroy them.
In fact, that sounds more than a little familiar with the release of Avatar where the human exploiters are doing something similar. to the inhabitants of the moon Pandora (which, as many have noted, is the story of the British and Pocahontas). Another similar film is Planet 51 which offers the same message but more entertainingly – the aliens are living a lifestyle familiar from the US in the 1950s and, while they are initially afraid of the humans, one of them becomes their rescuer and hero. In Terra, we don't see much of the life of the aliens (who are designed something like tadpoles) in their strange, thin city, except those who fly around happily, along with blue whales in the sky. The humans are aggressors except for one who is hidden, just as in Planet 51, and then helps the aliens against the humans.
Made in 3D, there are some good effects in visualising space and the universe. There is also a huge familiar cast list of voices.
However, it is not particularly gripping and much of it plays like the equivalent of a space action video game.
(US, 2009, d. Christian Alvart)
Stories about government child care agencies can raise very sensitive issues, especially with examples of care workers failing to see the damage wrought on children by cruel or neglectful parents. These stories are usually told in television reports and documentaries or in telemovies.
On the other hand, stories about children who wreak destruction on parents and on carers are the material of horror and terror movies. And there have been many. The Bad Seed gave us a phrase to describe these children. More recently, we have seen Orphan, The Unborn, The Uninvited and many others. Which puts Case 39 in a group of films. It leads us to think that Lilith (now there's a name that dares a horror story) is a nice 10 year old and that her parents, trying to destroy her and send her to hell are monsters. But most audiences will be immediately on the alert and know that this is not the case.
Busy and harassed agent, Emily Jenkins (Renee Zellwegger) accepts case 39 from her organised boss, Adrian Lester. She is so charmed by Lilith and horrified by her interviews with the parents, with some help from her psychologist friend (Bradley Cooper) and her police friend and confidant (Ian McShane) that she takes Lilith into her home to care for her. As we all know, big mistake.
The several strands of interest in the story include watching Lilith exercise her sweetness and light until it turns nasty and diabolical, seeing how Emily manages and when she wakes up to the truth (and visits the poor parents in custody), and waiting for Lilith to exercise her diabolical powers on Emily's friends. There is quite a vivid scene as one victim confronts his fear of hornets who overwhelm him.
German director, Christian Alvart, made the much more tense and eerie Antibodies and went on to make the eerie science fiction film, Pandorum.
Jodelle Ferland is very good as Lilith and gives some credibility to this not unfamiliar terror story.
(Canada, 2010, d. Atom Egoyan)
A film about adult issues designed for a thoughtful audience.
Chloe is based on Anne Fontaine's French film of 2004 with Fanny Ardant, Emmanuelle Beart and Gerard Depardieu. This time the wife is played by Julianne Moore, the prostitute, Chloe, by Amanda Seyfield and the husband by Liam Neeson. A very strong cast and strong performances.
Catherine (Moore) and David (Neeson) have been married for 20 years but each has become involved in their professional life, she a gynaecologist, he an arts lecturer, that they have grown used to each other and take each other for granted. When Catherine suspects David of having an affair, she pays for Chloe to make advances to David and report back to her. As always, events do not follow expected paths and people distort the truth, fantasise and are seduced by desires they were not aware of.
Director Atom Egoyan usually writes his own screenplays (Ararat, Adoration) but did not write this one. It is more straightforward than his usual films even though Chloe's reports and behaviour need our constant evaluation. At times, the film is quite explicit in its presentation of the relationships bringing forcefully to audience awareness the strange attractions and the moral dilemmas the characters, especially Catherine, find themselves in - and the mature response the film demands from its audience.
(US, 2010, d. Breck Eisner)
George A Romero, of the Living Dead films, made a small film in the early 1970s which had good reviews and something of a cult status, The Crazies. Almost 40 years on, here is a remake that brings the story up to date.
As remakes go, this is a pretty good one, and not a bad terror story either.
Set in a small midwest town, the film opens with streets and buildings on fire and people running amok. It then goes back 48 hours to show how disaster struck – and continued.
The heriff is an upright man and his assistant loyal and helpful. The sheriff's wife is the local doctor and is pregnant. The baseball match is going on. On to the field comes a man with a shotgun and a quietly crazed look. The team and the watchers flee for cover and there is a shootout. Then someone else seems mad. A house is burnt down. Communications are cut off (although the audience knows that someone is watching this town with a kind of google earth device).
Where the film works well is in the writing and the performances and the growing tension. Some explanations are discovered – human error and not something weird or from another world or the supernatural. Masked military arrive to take charge and herd the residents into trucks to intern them or to kill them.
Finally, of course, there is a remnant trying to reach safety against impossible odds. Plenty of tension with the mystery of what is going on and how this all came about.
Timothy Olyphant (who can be villainous or cynical in roles) brings a sturdy integrity to the role of the sheriff with British Joe Anderson very good as Russell, the Deputy. Australian Radha Mitchell is the wife and doctor.
Familiar enough but much better than the average film of this type.
(US, 2009, d. Scott Cooper)
For decades, Jeff Bridges has been an impressive performer. He is still seen as The Dude from the Big Lebowski. However, his performance here as an alcoholic singer who is struggling at 57 to keep his career going, whose inspiration for writing songs has dried up (or been drowned by his drinking) and who has never settled down (four divorces all told) has received many awards and an Oscar nomination. He deserves them.
Bridges' character, Bad Blake, always turns up to his gigs but his performances are sometimes perfunctory or cut short – and he is glancing around to find his female fans. We see him singing in bowling alleys or in hotels and then moving on through Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
But, he gets a chance when he meets the niece of his piano-player in Santa Fe, a local journalist, divorced with a four year old son. She is played with both a genial tone and some determination by Maggie Gylenhaal, also Oscar-nominated. They hit it off and Bad takes an interest in her and relates well to her son. Could this be a turn around in his life?
He has been a mentor and composed songs for a successful young singer but tries to avoid him. However, when he has to agree to open a Phoenix concert for him and the younger man not only shows respect but joins him on stage for a duet, he has to re-appraise his opinion of him.
But, Bad's life was not meant to be easy and he makes a big mistake which demands that he confront his alcoholism, his relationships and his lack of responsibility.
Perhaps not the most original of stories and Robert Duvall's appearance later in the film as a reformed alcoholic reminds us that for his role as a singer in need of some kind of saving, Duvall received his Oscar for Tender Mercies.
However, it is Bridges' film, and he does his own singing of T Bone Burnett's country songs. So does Colin Farrell who is very good as the young singer.
Not a great film but satisfying - and its has some fine performances and a great one by Jeff Bridges.
(US, 2009, d. Kirk Jones)
In recent years, Robert di Niro has seemed more eccentric and mannered on the screen, whether it be as the father in the Focker films or in some of his crime dramas like righteous Kill. It is a pleasure to see him rather underplaying his role here.
He is Frank Goode, a recent widower and misses his wife dearly. She had been the point of contact for his family, two daughters and two sons. He does his daily routines and spends a lot of time in the garden. He decides to invite the children for the weekend, a chance to see them and for them to see one another. And, of course, they ring with their various excuses that they cannot come. He makes up his mind to visit them.
This is an American adaptation of an Italian film, Stanno Tutti Bene, Everybody's Fine, by Giuseppe Tornatore, made after his Oscar-winning and popular Cinema Paradiso. Marcello Mastroianni was the star of the Tornatore film, an eminent star of Italian cinema as De Niro still is of American cinema.
The film becomes a road movie (Frank's health means that he has to travel by bus rather than plane, though when he finally travels by plane, his fears and his health are a dangerous combination). He has an artist son living in New York City. He is not home. The audience knows more than Frank, that the son has been involved in drug difficulties in Mexico. Off to Chicago to see his older daughter (Kate Beckinsale), married with a son. They all put up a good front but the audience becomes aware that all is not well here. Then to Denver to see his other son (Sam Rockwell) who he thought was a conductor but leads a quiet life and plays timpani. His younger daughter (Drew Barrymore) lives in Las Vegas and says she is a dancer with a lavish apartment. Actually, her problems are quite complicated.
Everybody's Fine. Of course not.
As the children begin to speak more openly with their father, he learns that his wife had protected him from problems. The children found it difficult to communicate with him and he drove them hard with his perfectionistic expectations. Frank is in denial about all of this but is forced to face facts, re-appraise his attitudes and the achievements as well as the problems of his children. But, he does discover that his artist son did appreciate his father's urging him to be an artist.
While Everybody's Fine is a movie entertainment (and it does entertain, although some audiences have found it a bit too emotional), it is not a documentary about families. Nevertheless, many will identify with the characters and the issues – and realise that honesty and hope are a better recipe for life than demands and severity which in fact diminish self-esteem.
(US, 2010, d. Tom Vaughan)
The extraordinary measures of the title of this film about disease and cure are those of the scientists who research in order to find cures and the business people who want to provide healing drugs (and/or those who are interested in large profit margins).
The film is based on a true story, that of John Crowley and his family, with Crowley acting as consultor for the film (and appearing in a cameo as a business executive at a finance meeting). Perhaps the subject or those like it are more familiar from television series and movies. However, a lot of audiences will be caught up by the plight of the Crowley family who have two of their three children affected deeply by Pompe Disease, a rare neuromuscular disorder (more information quickly available from Wikipedia, plus a photo of Crowley who actually looks more photogenic than the bulky Brendan Fraser who plays him).
Crowley worked in Biotechnology and his investigations led him to Lincoln Nebraska and the work of an academic scientist, Robert Stonehill. He is played with gruff introversion and workaholic prickliness by Harrison Ford, who executive produced the film.
Meeting Stonehill was not easy for Crowley and their association over the years meant many conflicts between the theoretical and the pragmatic.
However, the film shows how much time, energy and finance is required to research theories and to test them and document trials of the drugs under development. It also reminds the audience that many researchers are in love with the abstract and need to come into contact with people, especially those with the illnesses. And it also reminds us that medication is big business and discussions can focus on profits rather than the healing of the patients. (An interesting comparison is the determination of the Odone family to find medication to help their son in Lorenzo's Oil as well as a modest British film for television, Breaking the Mould, with Dominic West as Howard Florey and the development and testing of penicillin during World War II.)
THE FATHER OF MY CHILDREN (LE PERE DE MES ENFANTS)
(France, 2009, d. Mia Hansen- Love)
An impressive film from a director still in her 20s. A film about family and relationships but also a film about the film industry.
The first part focuses on Gregoire (Louis- Do de Lencquesaing), a very busy producer. In fact, the first ten minutes show him making phone call after phone call on his mobile phone, as he leaves the building, walks along the street, finds his car, drives (speedily and without seat belt), the camera tracking him. (Perhaps this is a record for showing mobile phone use in cinema – an opening that would have been impossible twenty years earlier.). He does get pulled up by the police!
At his country home, he has a loving wife, Sylvia (Chiara Caselli), and three daughters, the younger two devoted to their father, the young teenager (de Lenquesaing's daughter, Alicia) moody and reclusive. There are some exuberant family sequences, but the phone is never far away.
When tragedy strikes the family, the film moves attention to the wife and her skills in handling the crisis in the film company. She shows a great deal of courage and energy trying to save the business side of the company.
The last part of the film shifts to Clemence, the older daughter, and how she handles the situation and her feelings – and the possibility that she will move into the film industry.
In her early career, the director was helped by Humbert Balsan, an energetic producer who, with extreme good will towards film-makers, especially from countries whose industries were developing, over-extended himself and took his own life in 2005. The film serves as a tribute to him, an acknowledgement of gratitude and an insight into the pressures of the film business, the continual need for money and trying to deal delicately and diplomatically with the moods and performances in real life but artistic types. This makes for an interesting and satisfying film.
FROM PARIS WITH LOVE
(France, 2010, d. Pierre Morel)
Slam-bang – and more.
Luc Besson,who directed some classics in the past (Subway, The Big Blue) and a film on Joan of Arc (The Messenger) has for a long time written and produced a lot of over the top action shows like The Transporter series or Unleashed. And he relies here on former cinematographer, Pierre Morel, who also directed Taken with Liam Neeson to direct his screenplay.
It's the war on terrorism and it's right there in Paris. And John Travolta is let loose to wage and win the war.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers is not usually in this kind of show but obviously enjoys the opportunity to be the American embassy fixer in Paris, bugging offices and that kind of thing, but wanting to be out there with guns blazing. And he does get the opportunity. He contrasts with Travolta, head shaven, big moustache, bulky but agile, with an R-rated mouth on him, who seems to be always right in picking who are the bad guys with a shoot first, answer questions second approach. He gets lots of opportunities to do this. And the stunt doubles have plenty of work to do as well.
Basically, the plot is a plan for a terrorist attack during a Paris international meeting on Africa and some betraying going on – though if there was to be a bomb victim, the obnoxious American official would be a not unwelcome candidate as she ignores warnings and then whinges.
Some moments when there is a chance to admire beautiful Paris but there are always Chinese, Pakistanis, Arabs to be hunted and confronted. Rhys Meyers has to go through some disillusionment before he knows what the 'real world' is like. And Travolta leaps, sometimes literally from rooftop to rooftop, at the chance to be a mixture of James Bond, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and whoever the younger versions of these old heroes are today.
(US, 2010, d. Anand Tucker)
For years, American film-makers have mistaken Blarney for the whole of Ireland. And that is what they have done here.
A souffle-light (or whatever the Blarney equivalent is) of a story. Amy Adams wants her partner of four years to propose to her – but he is too busy being Dr Big Cardiologist to get round to it. When her father (John Lithgow) reminds her of an old family story which claims that women can propose to men in Ireland on Leap Day, she flies off to Dublin only to strike turbulence, landing in Cardiff and trapped there by stormy weather. She does the obnoxious American thing to all and sundry and demands to be taken to Dublin only to be appropriately rebuffed by Welsh irony. So, she hires a boat and lands, allegedly, in Dingle.
For the Irish and those who have visited Ireland, the geography of this film makes no sense at all! And, because the film-makers see Blarney instead of reality, there are cosy villages of yore, peopled by characters who have overdosed on The Quiet Man!
Since Dr Cardiologist is not worth proposing to, as will be revealed, there has to be someone else to fill the romantic requirements. And, there is. The manager of the local pub who has a chip on his shoulder but who needs the money and decides to drive the American to Dublin (taking many side roads instead of the highways that could have got them there in five hours, and, perhaps to keep her miserable, bypassing Cork into Tipperary). The film then becomes a kind of It Happened One Night in the Blarney backblocks. Matthew Goode is the driver who will eventually propose.
The lightest of date movies.
(US, 2010, d. Scott Stewart)
A weird one this one! And how weird it is.
In recent years, we have seen lots of strange angels in our pop movies. What about Christopher Walken in the Prophecy series? What about Keanu Reeves and Tilda Swinton in Constantine? And a small-budget thriller from Australia which has some theme similarities to Legion, a film called Gabriel? This time it is Paul Bettany as Michael the Archangel.
The screenwriters have been dipping into biblical sources as well as movie traditions. Michael arrives on earth as the film opens and offers a strange theology, that God has got sick of the human race (as happened at the time of the flood) and is ready to destroy it by sending loyal angels to do the job (rather brutally with a nod to George A Romero's Living Dead horror movies). (The heroine tells us a story from her mother who had lost faith in God after family tragedies – she still believed in God but thought that God had become tired of the all the human bullshit – and repeats this unusually phrased thought at the end.) The opening quote from the Psalms speaks of the fear of God, but it is interpreted as being afraid of God rather than its actual meaning of being in awe of and reverence for God.
Then we find that Michael has disobeyed God and is saving the life of a child about to be born (the date the film opens is December 23rd) of a single mother who does not know who the father is. The young man at the service station in the isolated Mojave desert is called Jeep (Yank for Joseph, perhaps, although the mother is surprisingly called Charlie). Thus the Gospel references.
However, this mother of a saviour who will lead the human race in hope has more than several echoes of the Terminator films. So a pot-pouri of angelology, theology, with lots of movie references (the TV is showing It's a Wonderful Life where Clarence is telling George Bailey he is wanting to earn his wings – Michael has just cut off his to identify with the humans). Assault on Precinct 13 and other siege films (like Westerns) come to mind as the final group of humans, with the mother of the saviour, defend themselves from angel/diabolic attack as they surround the service station.
The director acknowledges the sources but says the film is not about religion (though many groups in the US who have an apocalypse now or soon point of view may think it is). Rather, the film is an exercise in movie religionism!
This is one of those films that seems preposterous even as it tries to ground itself in serious sources. The only thing to do is to sit back and enjoy the siege and Michael, the angel warrior, trying to protect the human race – and does final battle with a steely-winged Gabriel. If this seems too impossible to sit through, fair enough. It's just a concoction. But, as usual, apocalypse happens in the US and the saviour is, of course, American. That thought is not particularly theological!
(France, 2010, d. Jean- Pierre Jeunet)
Once upon a time, there was a very strange, intriguing and enjoyable French comic fantasy, Delicatessen. In the 1990s it became something of a classic with its strange characters (odd-looking too) and bizarre goings on and humour. There was also City of Lost Children and Alien Resurrection and film buffs found a significantly different film-maker who had a rather wild and exotic visual imagination as well as flair for storytelling. By 2001, there was Amelie who charmed millions of people. On the other hand, there was the serious World War I epic, a Very Long Engagement, which starred Audrey Tautou who had been Amelie. Jean- Pierre Jeunet seemed to be something of a character, something of a movie magician. Then, some projects that did not eventuate – and no film for seven years.
The movie buffs breathed a sigh of relief when Micmacs appeared and, it seems, Jeunet has lost nothing of his magica qualities.
The story is rather preposterous (and some elements of wish-fulfilment) – but what does that matter when he tells it so entertainingly. Dany Boon (who made a comic impression in Welcome to the Sticks) is Bazil, whose father was killed by a landmine and who, as an adult, is wounded in the head by a bullet bouncing around his video store. He lives. But, wandering Paris, he comes across a group of eccentrics who work in a cave on all kinds of inventions. They welcome Bazil. In the meantime, two of the biggest and wealthiest arms dealers in Paris are rivals in getting contracts – and it is their companies who have been responsible for Bazil's situation.
This leads to all kinds of comic situations as Bazil and his friends (scientists, misfits, a surveyor who is a whizz at assessing heights, weights and distances, an a contortionist) eventually wreak mischief and then havoc on the two dealers.
Bazil is the innocent abroad who is a nice man who has been victimised – and he and his associates use comic means to achieve a comeuppance.
Plenty of smiles and some laughs. Fascination for the set designs and costumes. And a mischievous delight in following Bazil and co in their sometimes entertainingly outlandish escapades.
(Ireland, 2010, d. Neil Jordan)
The story of Ondine is the old fairy tale of the mermaid saved by a fisherman.
Neil Jordan has gone back to Ireland, where he made his first feature, Angel, almost thirty years ago, and found a way to bring the fairy tale into today's world and give it a wry twist.
This is west coast Ireland, the water, the docks, the village, the hills, a beautiful if sometimes rugged Ireland.
Syracuse (abbreviated to Sircus by the townspeople because of his drinking and being considered something of a clown) has been off the drink for a while but begins to doubt his senses when he finds a drowned women in his trawling net. She does not die. Rather, she revives and depends on Syracuse while wanting no-one to know she is there. Later, someone will speculate that she is illegal.
Annie, Syracuse's daughter who lives with her mother and her mother's boyfriend, suffers from kidney failure. She loves her father who takes her to her dialysis appointments. And he tries to tell her stories. And one about a woman fished from the sea. Annie, who is very well read and uses a quotidian and sometimes erudite vocabulary, thinks of this women as a mythical Irish seal creature, a Selkie, but is down-to-earth enough to go and find the women, who says her name is Ondine.
What follows is a mixture of the faerie and the realistic, with Syracuse still wondering if Ondine is really real. She is soon discovered and has the whole town talking. Syracuse does his talking in the confessional to the local priest (Stephen Rea who makes him a decent and humane priest), not confessing but wanting the confidentiality.
The idyll is too good to last, despite its lyrical moments, and Ondine's past comes to take her back. Quite a few plot developments, some melodramatic, some sad, before some kind of closure can be achieved and, maybe, the fairy tale can come true.
Colin Farrell shows again how versatile an actor he can be and makes Syracuse quite believable. Alison Barry (Annie) had never acted before. Alicja Bachleda (Trade and some Polish and German films) is Ondine and Irish stalward (especially from TV's Ballykissangel days – in which Colin Farrell appeared – is Syracuse's alcoholic wife).
PONYO (PONYO ON THE CLIFF BY THE SEA)
(Japan, 2008, d. Hayao Miyazaki.)
Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea is aimed at very young children – and reaches its target excellently. It does not condescend, tells a plain and simple story with touches of delight, humour, moments of fright. This is a satisfying combination. Because it works at this level, it is also agreeable for adults who enjoy animation films.
Director Hayao Miyazaki has been involved in Japanese animation since the 1980s. However, he had some years of study in the United States, especially with John Lasseter from Pixar Studios. He received the Academy Award for the best animation film of 2003 with Spirited Away. He followed this with the strong animation film for children and adults, Howll’s Moving Castle.
The film has a fairytale tone to it, sufficient realistic aspects that children can identify with. Just as Finding Nemo showed that audiences around the world respond to an entertaining film about fish, so this film about a goldfish who wants to become a little girl, is befriended by a little Japanese boy, is threatened by her sorcerer father but rescued by the Queen of the Sea, her mother, has all the ingredients to make an attractive film.
PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLYMPIANS: THE LIGHTNING THIEF
(US, 2010, d. Chris Columbus)
A Clash of the Titans Jr.
Or, perhaps, a Night at the Antiquities Museum and Theme Parks.
Based on a novel (2005 plus four sequels) very popular in the US by writer and historian, Rick Riordan, who told his original story to his son as a bedtime story, this is an enjoyable fantasy for younger audiences. The presupposition that the Gods of Olympus are still around and, in fact, still active in controlling the world, is more than fanciful but, having accepted it, we go with this story of demi-gods, the children of gods and humans – quite a lot of American demi-gods, in fact, but no indication whether the Olympians indulged in visits to any other countries let alone Greece!
Logan Lerman is Percy Jackson who discovers that his father is Poseidon who had come to earth and met Sally, Percy's mother, but then disappeared at his brother, Zeus's orders. Capricious and jealous these deities.
At this juncture, the unknowing Percy is chief suspect for having stolen Zeus's lightning bolt and Zeus (Sean Bean) confronts Poseidon (Kevin McKidd) and lays down a deadline for the bolt to be restored. Well, what happens when the wrath of the gods pursues you, for example in the form of a literature teacher who is in reality a Fury? You get help from Chiron (Pierce Brosnan) who moonlights on earth as a wheelchair bound museum guide (which conceals his horsy parts as he is a centaur) but is in charge of training at Camp Half Blood, the camp for the demi-gods.
If that all seems too far-fetched, then forget Percy Jackson. If not, definitely persevere because there will be a confrontation with Medusa (Uma Thurman plus snake hair), with a huge CGI Hydra and a visit to Hades (Steve Coogan the character, under Los Angeles the location) and a mission to find three pearls that will help Percy to recover his mother (Catherine Keener). His companions on the road are a satyr , Grover, (Brandon Jackson) and the valiant daughter of Athena, Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario). Percy's age has been upped from 12 to 17, so there is attraction between Percy and , of course – and provides a romantic ending which does not end in a clinch or a kiss but in sword fight practice!
This is an outing for younger audiences who have imagination and a sense of adventure. It is directed with zest by Chris Columbus who directed Home Alone, Mrs Doubtfire and the first two Harry Potter films.
(US, 2009, d. Timothy Linh Bui)
Powder blue could be anything but seems to relate to the snow shower in Los Angeles at the climax of this film where Forest Whitaker comes out of a church and finds blue snow falling.
Maybe that is symbolic of how the film works. On the one hand, it is set in the gritty, realistic and sometimes ugly world of Los Angeles. On the other, it is something of a fable about human loneliness, loneliness in a city as densely populated as Los Angeles where there are mysterious links between people.
Because it is set at Christmas and involves interlinking LA stories, it is has been compared with Crash. It is certainly in that vein but the stories stretch credibility at times and play with audience emotions.
The principal story is that of Rose Jonny (Jessica Biel) a desperate single mother with a dying son in hospital who works as a stripper/exotic dancer at a club managed by Patrick Swayze (several performances included).
Then there is the story of Jack, out of prison after 25 years, meeting up briefly with Kris Kristofferson, and then on a quest to find his daughter whom he has never seen and who has always longed for him. This is a role that enables Ray Liotta to look sinister as well as more sympathetic than usual.
Eddie Redmayne is Qwerty (an unusual 'type' of name!) who works in a mortuary, looks as if he needs some good meals but lives by himself and finds it difficult to relate.
Forest Whittaker is Charlie, a desperate man who remembers the death of his wife for which he blames himself – and the flashbacks indicate that he is not wrong – who is driving around at night, railing against God for what God has done to him, then offering people money to shoot him. They include Qwerty, a taxi driver and a transexual, Lexus, with whom he has a final shocking meeting.
Each of the stories has its interest but they are not always gripping, perhaps too contrived for the screenplay. The film was written and directed by Vietnam-born Timothy Linh Bui (brother of Tony Bui who made Three Seasons which the brothers wrote) who also directed Green Dragon, about refugees from Vietnam, starring Forest Whittaker and Patrick Swayze.
EL SECRETO DE SUS OJOS (THE SECRET OF HIS EYES)
Argentina, 2009, d. Juan Jose Campanella.
The Secret of His Eyes was Argentina’s nomination for best foreign language Oscar for 2009. It is a strong genre film.
Ricardo Darin, a prolific actor in Argentinean films, plays a legal man who investigated a murder case twenty-five years earlier, decided to write a book about it, goes back to the case and tries to investigate and discover what really happened. Soledad Villamil is the attorney working with him. (In terms of makeup, Darin’s makeup over the twenty-five years marks a strong difference in skin tone and beard while Soledad Villamil remains exactly the same.)
The film recreates a brutal murder, the reaction of the husband of the victim, the tracking down of the alleged killer and his violent reactions. He is also released from jail in an amnesty and moves to work as a thug and gangster. He arranges the assassination of the police inspector’s partner.
The film is interesting in its detail about the police investigation, the work of the lawyers. It also has a twist at the end, an alternate presentation of individual, even vigilante, justice.
(UK, 2009, d. Michael J. Bassett)
In these years of comic book hero films, here is another who was the brainchild of Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan (and who was played by Vincent D'Onofrio in the biographical film on Howard, The Whole Wide World).
The difference with Solomon Kane is that he is located within British history rather than in a fantasy era like Conan. The world is barbaric but it is the Elizabethan and Jacobean world (which, as Shakespeare's plays of this time, was a brutal and violent period).
According to this story, Kane served with Drake and became a mercenary. The film opens with him defeating Moors in Africa and then being confronted by demons and devils. He makes a pledge to redeem himself and become a man of peace. He does this in a puritan way, especially as he travels with a Puritan family on their way to leave for America (Pete Postlethwaite, Alice Krige and Rachel and Peter Hurd-Wood). Somerset and Devon are in turmoil with magicians holding nobles in thrall and bands of thugs, possessed by evil, roam the land and attack the innocent.
Solomon's dilemma is whether he should defend the family when it is attacked and their daughter abducted or break his vow of peace and risk hell. Of course, he does, only to find that he is confronting his brother and a mad and powerful sorcerer (Jason Flemyng) who has imprisoned his father (Max Von Sydow). Finally, he must fight a gigantic and fierce demon.
This one is quite good of its kind. It has a familiar but reasonable story line. It is always fascinating as it locates itself in British history. There is enough sword and sorcery for the fans. And it has a better than average British cast led by a sturdy and grim hero played by James Purefoy.
UP IN THE AIR
(US, 2009, d. Jason Reitman)
Up in the Air can mean that something is uncertain – and the central character of this light drama with serious overtones finds that his life and choices are up in the air. But, he is also up in the air, literally, as he strives to clock up ten million air miles (on American Airlines which get lots of publicity throughout). He is continually on the move around the US from his home and his company base in Omaha, Nebraska, feeling at home in airports and familiar with their check-in rituals, security rituals and boarding rituals (although he does a double take as the flight attendant seems to ask him, 'Cancer?' but she is offering him a soft drink, 'Can, sir?)'.
The reason he is up in the air is that his job is one that has been on the rise in recent years. His company sends him out to do a dirty job for companies, firing their employees. Through the film there are collages of disbelieving Americans, the whole range of gender, ethnic background, social status, facing being fired – and a whole range of responses from resignation to despair and threatening suicide. The company tries a soft sell (but relentless) manner which many see through. They are also offered a folder with severance terms, presented as if this was the greatest opportunity for a new life.
This expert in dismissal is Ryan Bingham (George Clooney in an Oscar-nominated performance). He picks up women as he travels. Commitment is not one of his characteristics. The film shows one relationship with a travelling businesswoman (Vera Farmiga, Oscar-nominated) which has its moments and an unexpected comeuppance. He also has a most resolute, theory-bound trainee (Anna Kendrick, Oscar-nominated) who tries to be relentless though her inexperience in dealing with people is shown up.
In the meantime, he visits his sister in Wisconsin for her daughter's wedding and has to pep the groom who is getting cold feet.
It is a perfectly ordinary drama with characters well-drawn and something to reflect on both about human nature and the current economic situation. But the reasons for its Oscar nominations, which also include Best Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay, elude this reviewer.
(US, 2010, d. Garry Marshall)
It's really a 2 hour plus movie equivalent of valentine's day cards, posters and romantic gifts, roses and chocolates and dinner dates, in fact, the date movie par excellence. It was made for the romantic audience at the multiplex for a light night out. To that extent, it is critic proof.
This is a Los Angeles story, so geared principally for US audience sensibility, more extraverted than introverted. There is a lot of travel in and around LA , especially with the delivery of flowers as the shop at the centre of the film has a busy, busy day. (Even Julia Roberts is seen in a stretch limousine at Rodeo Drive and the chauffeur asks her whether she has ever shopped there and she replies that she did once and it was a big, a huge mistake – that joke is in the final credits!)
So, Julia Roberts, not in so many films in recent years, is one reason to see the film even if for most of it she is sitting next to Bradley Cooper on a long haul flight. It is probably the rather starry cast appearing in quite a number of stories which are gradually interlinked that is the main reason for buying a ticket to see it. And, it depends on whether you like the stars or not.
The film opens with Ashton Kutcher, which seemed something of a bad move, but he is at the centre of the story, proposing to Jessica Alba, helping his best friend, teacher Jennifer Garner, who is in a relationship with Patrick Dempsey (but you know something is wrong). Actually, Ashton Kutcher's character is rather nice as is Jennifer Garner so there is a pleasant happy/sad story there. Oldies will appreciate Shirley Mac Laine and Hector Elizondo (who has appeared in every Garry Marshall film for nearly 30 years). There is also Jamie Foxx, Queen Latifah and Jessica Biel, Eric Dane for Grey's Anatomy fans, let alone Patrick Dempsey, Taylor Swift for the music fans appearing with Taylor Lautner for the Twlight fans. For the young adults there is Anne Hathaway with Topher Grace. Something for everyone – even Bryce Robinson, aged about seven who has a crush on... (no spoiling the plot!).
At the beginning, TV executive Kathy Bates orders sports reporter Jamie Foxx to go out and report on Valentine's Day from people in the street – and tells him she wants plenty of 'fluff'. So that is what this film is, plenty of dream fantasy, plenty of romantic fluff.
WINTER IN WARTIME (OORLOGSWINTER)
(Holland, 2008, d. Martin Koolhoven)
2008-2009 saw quite a number of films from continental Europe going back over World War II and Resistance movements: Flame and Citroen from Denmark, Max Manus from Sweden, L' Armee du Crime from France, let alone Tarantinos' Inglourious Basterds.
Wartime in Winter is based on a novel for younger readers by former politician, Jan Turlouw, in 1963 and considered autobiographical in some parts. It is a wartime memoir, set in January 1945 with Nazi forces still occupying Holland, the Resistance mounting attacks but being betrayed by locals to the military who wreak hostage reprisal deaths.
Michiel is the 14 year old son of the mayor of a small town. His uncle Ben, who is part of the resistance comes to stay. When a pilot crashes in the forest near the town, circumstances involve Michiel in caring for him in his hiding place. Michiel's sister, Erica, a nurse, is brought into the forest to treat the pilot's leg, something which brings out quite some possessiveness and jealousy on the part of Michiel who wants to do something for the resistance on his own.
Everything is seen from the point of view, the limited point of view, of the boy. He wonders whether the father he loves is a collaborator. He entrusts messages and packages to his Uncle Ben to get to England and authorities. He is dismayed when his father is arrested as a hostage. He makes plans to help the soldier get to a neighbouring town but accidents happen and things go wrong, especially when he realises that everything in the town is not as it might seem. Ultimately, Michiel has to make life and death decisions that any 14 year old should not have to make.
By focusing on a small town, one family and one downed British pilot, the film captures the experience of the war in miniature. It pays great attention to details of life in the snow-covered wintry town that makes the audience feel it has been there. It is interesting to note that over 60 years since the events and almost fifty years since the publication of the novel the story is still worth telling.
THE WOLF MAN
(US, 2010, d. Joe Johnston)
A very satisfying and even elegant horror film for those who prefer classic horror movies rather than the contemporary slasher fads. It is based quite closely on the 1941 film of the same name with Lon Chaney Jr, Claude Rains and Evelyn Ankers, written by Curt Siodmak. The 40s film was set at that time. This version goes back to 1891 and amplifies some aspects of the story, especially in the role of the father of the wolf man, Sir John Talbot.
First of all, the film looks very good indeed. The attention to detail and design to take us back into this Victorian period has been painstaking. Sets, costumes and effects mean that the audience is taken into this world to feel at home in it as well as to feel quite uncomfortable once the eerie proceedings begin. Danny Elfman's atmospheric score is reminiscent of the music themes by Wojciech Kilar for Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula – which also immersed its audience in the 1890s.
One of the best features of the screenplay and direction is that there is no tongue-in-cheek ironic dialogue or send-up of the genre. It is played seriously and straight and with quite some intelligence.
There have been myths of lycanthropy throughout the ages. The film industry since the 1930s has not been slow in providing many a movie of wolf men, including the classic An American Werewolf in London (whose make-up artist, Rick Baker, is responsible for the transformations here), Wolf with Jack Nicholson and the more recent Underworld series. This version, however, as with the recent ironic graphic novel treatment of Sherlock Holmes by Guy Ritchie, delves into the literature of the 19th century and seems, in its settings to draw on Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, The Hound of the Baskervilles and Many Dickens' stories.
When Lawrence Talbot (Benicio del Toro) is touring in London from the US (we see the Yorick scene from Hamlet), he receives a letter from Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt), his brother's anxious fiancee. It soon emerges that his brother has been savagely killed and the villagers (out of Hardy and other novelists, perhaps) suspect local gypsies and their carnival bear. But, the full moon soon makes everyone realise that a wolf is on the prowl – and indiscriminately killing its prey.
Lawrence promises Gwen that he will search for his brother's killer. Meantime, he is reconciled with his father, Sir John (Anthony Hopkins).
There is a trend in literature and cinema that human beings can be at the prey of meaningless malevolence (think of The Birds or Jaws). Lawrence, worthy as he is, is wounded by the wolf and...
An inspector from Scotland Yard (Hugo Weaving), who had headed the Ripper case some years earlier, is sent to investigate Lawrence. His father has Lawrence committed (there is a history of alleged insanity after the violent death of his mother) and an arrogant doctor (Anthony Sher) uses him as a display case for delusions. Unfortunately for him and many others, he times his display at the full moon.
The cast (which also included Geraldine Chaplin as a gypsy) give a sense of elegance and decorum even to the horror. Director Joe Johnston (who made Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, some time ago as well as Jurassic Park III) keeps the tension simmering. In fact, there are two moments when we might jump in our seats even before the title appears (and several after that). The Wolf Man is very well done.
YOUTH IN REVOLT
(US, 2009, d. Miguel Arteta)
Somebody said that youth are always revolting! Not so, would say Nick Twisp (though probably with a larger and more elegant and linguistically adventurous and sophisticated vocabulary), the hero (though probably anti-hero in the 1960s sense would be more appropriate) of three novels by American writer, C.D.Payne. They have a cult following in the US.
It may be better to get to the hand-wringing part of the review first: the film does reflect some of the permissive aspects of contemporary society, especially in adult divorces and partnerships and their impermanence, and teenager's preoccupation with sexuality (especially the opening scene in Nick's bedroom) and virginity (as in loss of). That said, the point of view of the screenplay and of Nick Twisp is that maturity and commitment are best, especially after the immediate experience of the loss of virginity whether it be in happy circumstances or in stupid circumstances. And that is positive.
Much of the film is very funny and would have most audiences chuckling rather than laughing uproariously. Much of this is due to the writing, the one-liners, the word-play, the juxtaposing of nerdish expertise in language, literature, arthouse cinema with the mundane realities of teenage life and friendships.
Much of the humour comes from the performance of Michael Cera as Nick Twisp. He has had a career on television in many episodes of Arrested Development. On screen, he seems to give the same performance over and over (from Juno to Superbad to Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist to Year One – and to Paper Heart where he is, allegedly, playing himself). He does it here, only more so. And it works. One wonders can he do anything else. The film offers the answer, 'Yes'.
Nick Twisp is too intelligent and too cleverly well-informed to make a good impression on his peers. He has no relationship with girls. When he and his rather slatternly mother (Jean Smart) and her current boyfriend (Zach a bit the same as in The Hangover) go to a caravan park to escape some vindictive sailor creditors, Nick meets Sheeni (Portia Doubleday) the nice but rebellious daughter of strictly religious parents. They bond – as friends. Can anything every come of this friendship?
Nick has a brainwave after Sheeni tells him that to get kicked out of his mother's house and come to live with his father (Steve Buscemi) and near her, he needs to be really bad. Enter Nick's alter ego, the suave, fashionably dressed, cigarett-smoking, moustachioed, French-accented Francois Dillinger. As played by Michael Cera – and quite differently from his usual screen persona for Nick.
Francois leads Nick into all kinds of trouble, including crashing cars, burning down a restaurant, infiltrating an elite boarding school.
Of course, the whole film is slight, is geared towards Nick's age group (and bemused parents), but there is a thoughtfulness and humanity behind it and, one might call it, 'a Michael Cera film'.