SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS MARCH 2011
ADJUSTMENT BUREAU, The
BIG MOMMA, LIKE FATHER LIKE SON
GNOMEO AND JULIET
I AM NUMBER FOUR
LITTLE BIT OF HEAVEN, A
NEVER LET ME GO
NO STRINGS ATTACHED
SEASON OF THE WITCH
WASTED ON THE YOUNG
WAY BACK, The
THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU
(US, 2011, d. George Golfi)
When the credit for this film being based on a story by Philip K. Dick, The Adjustment Team, then the tone of the film fell into place. However, it was not quite doing it while the plot was unfolding. Dick is famous for being the author of Blade Runner, Total Recall and other stories on which films have been based like Minority Report and Paycheck. The world of Philip K. Dick had many dimensions, explored the reality of human nature (both of humans and replicants) and took its fans into different futuristic worlds and different moral choices.
The world of The Adjustment Bureau does not look like a different futuristic place at all, even despite mysterious doors which open directly into locations some distance away in terms of realism. This is New York as we have come to know it, American politics, campaigns and dirty tricks as we have come to take them for granted, romance as we might expect it in the movies. Then strange men wearing hats appear and start to control the protagonists’ lives, even with digi-books. But, this seems so casual that we don’t realise that we are in a Philip K. Dick world and are forced to juggle the realism with the fantasy.
Not that the theme is not interesting in itself: the nature and exercise of free will. This takes the audience out of its comfort zone (although we are lagging a bit in appreciating where and how we are being taken) and raises questions of transcendence in terms of destiny, fate and free choices. There is talk of the chairman, who seems to run a bureau which determines people’s lives. But, there are some rebels even amongst his guardians (angels?) with their electronic books of life, everything mapped out for all of us. But, many science fiction films have reminded us that love can overcome everything. And this is the key here. Is that what the chairman hopes we all will do, move out of the seemingly predestined plan, discover love and make free choices?
I am not so sure that many audiences leaving The Adjustment Bureau will want to spend this kind of time musing over what they have seen. They might simply say it was interesting enough, that the actors were good, but it was a bit of a misfire.
The actors are good. Matt Damon, rather ubiquitous at the moment, is a genial politician with a quick temper who falls in love with a dancer, played by Emily Blunt. And Terence Stamp, brooding looks and diction, is one of the chief underlings of the Chairman.
A science fiction romantic oddity.
BIG MOMMA, LIKE FATHER LIKE SON
(US, 2011, d. John Whitesell)
There were obviously enough fans out there, especially in the US, for Martin Lawrence to don fat suit, wig and mammy dresses to do undercover work in Big Momma’s House 2. There must have been enough again for this Big Momma Three. However, Malcolm, the FBI agent, has now acquired a stepson whom he wants to study at Duke University, whereas the son, aged 17 (a year older than Justin Bieber when he launched his career) already has his music contract to be signed by Malcolm for his first CD.
You think - how can they both get into the fat suits and the wigs (and the son’s appalling sense of fashion) so that the film combines parental clashes, FBI investigation, comedy of mistaken identity and the possibility of a school romance? Step by step they do, making it seem almost plausible at times. The quick answer is that a USB stick the FBI needs for evidence has been hidden in a music box in a girls’ art school in Atlanta. Malcolm’s opportunity for an arrest has gone wrong and his son has witnessed a murder.
So, a variation on St Trinians, with Malcolm becoming Big Momma the house mother and the son becoming Big Momma’s grandniece.
It all plays out much as we might expect but that’s the nature of this kind of comic action concoction. The gangsters, Eastern European, of course, are really nasty. However, this is meant to be a cheerful movie so, during the final credits everyone in the cast, gangsters included, have the chance to join in the rap song and move with the rhythms. No real reason why Big Mother couldn’t come back again.
(US, 2010, d. Tony Goldwyn)
In the 1980s, Kenny Waters was convicted of a brutal murder of a woman in Massachussets. It was considered an attempted robbery. Kenny had a reputation for being a troublesome child, an irresponsible young man. The police were out to nail him, especially a female officer on the force who was intent on proving herself among her male colleagues. At first, the charges did not stick. After some years, his former girlfriend and his partner testified against him and he received a life sentence.
Kenny was very close to his sister, Betty Ann. She decided to study law in order to prove his innocence.
This is one of those stories of dogged perseverance, of someone enduring prison life while innocent, and the repercussions for the family. Familiar enough, but stories of courage and stick-to-it-iveness always draw an audience. This American story is told in the American way, hearts on sleeves, emotional appeal, orchestrated score, spirit of triumph over all odds.
Hilary Swank has shown over the years (and two Oscar wins) that she is more than adept at strong female characters. This is true of her Betty Ann, tested by her love for her brother, tested by her uncomprehending husband, sometimes alienated from her sons, enduring the long years of study. It is Sam Rockwell, who is an actor of quite some skill in diverse roles, who portrays Kenny. Minnie Driver offers moral support as a fellow student. Melissa Leo is the hard and determined police officer. Juliette Lewis is good as the perjuring girlfriend.
The factor which changes Kenny Waters’ appeal is the development of DNA technology, not available when he was found guilty but developing during the 1990s. (Another tension arises as to whether regulations have allowed the destruction of evidence after a certain time period.)
Films like this encourage an interior almost-rage at the awareness of injustice perpetrated on the innocent as well as a feeling of helplessness in the face of conspiracies against the innocent. Not that Kenny Waters is an admirable character. His behaviour in prison is disruptive – but, given his innocence and his being framed, why wouldn’t he be disruptive? It is the principle which is the important thing in stories like this – and the reminder, which is spoken by Betty Ann, that in a state with capital punishment, Kenny would be long dead.
Since the trial, Betty Ann has been involved in an organisation that works to prove the innocence of the condemned – its representative is played by Peter Gallagher.
Certainly a worthy film with a significant subject but given standard treatment.
GNOMEO AND JULIET
(UK, 2011, d. Kelly Asbury)
The only little girl in the very small audience one Thursday afternoon was obviously caught up with the drama of the modern Montagues and Capulets (the human neighbours and the Blues and the Reds, their gnome equivalents) that at one stage she wondered out loud where was Gnomeo. This time the littlies might enjoy a variation on Shakespeare while those a bit older might hesitate: garden gnomes?. After all, the characters (except for some humans now and then) are garden gnomes in the yards of English homes. We know this is England because we glimpse a bus whose destination is Stratford on Avon.
Anyone wondering about this transposition of 17th century tragedy to modern suburbia may enjoy the discussion between Gnomeo and the statue of Shakespeare in the park (voiced by Patrick Stewart) with Gnomeo who is, naturally, wanting to be re-united with Juliet, dismayed while the bard argues in favour of his own death-centred drama. When it seems that the end is tragic, Shakespeare nods, ‘Told you so!’.
These gnomes have obviously been sneaking off to the movies while their human owners were not looking. And they have been watching the Toy Story series because they do the same thing, have a life of their own but go into their expected poses as soon as humans turn up.
What might make this film more enjoyable for film buffs is the strong voice cast. (And a nice trivial pursuit question: what film did Maggie Smith and Jason Statham appear in together. Here it is, she Gnomeo’s mother and he the rather typecast Tybalt.) James Mc Avoy and Emily Blunt are the starcrossed lovers and Michael Caine is plain to hear as Juliet’s father. You have to listen quickly to catch Julie Walters and Richard Wilson as the human Capulets and Montagues. There is a monstrously huge mower, called the Terrafirmanator, obtained by a computer savvy gnome, Benny (Matt Lucas) – and it is ‘voiced’ by wrestler Hulk Hogan. Someone for everyone! Even a Hispanic-sounding flamingo from the garden.
Yes, we know what is going to happen, but it is entertaining to see how this entertainment for children incorporates Shakespeare.
And, yes, the soundtrack replete with familiar melodies is a collection of Elton John and Bernie Taupin songs because the film is a product of Elton John and David Furnish who have turned their attention to children.
(US, 2011, Peter and Bobby Farrelly)
Nobody ever accused the Farrelly Brothers of using good taste in their comedies. For more than 16 years they have been making films which marketing has to apologise for or capitalise on. Words like ‘crass’, ‘gross’, even ‘disgusting’ come up – not for the films as a whole, but rather for the humour, the jokes and the visualising of bodily functions that are not normally shown on screen (or with such detail and shock value).
That being said, they belong to comic satirists who revel in showing the dark side of human nature while ultimately pitching a resolution of personal crises that is basically traditional and moral. The Farrellys are getting older, partly milder – though they are not against breakout sequences for shock and/or comic sake.
Hall Pass is an American term for a school student who is allowed out of class and can wander the corridors while everyone else is confined and living up to disciplinary expectations. As explained by a psychologist character in the film, it could be used by wives for therapy, to see what their husbands really believe and what they would really do, were they to have a hall pass, say a week away from marriage – and what they themselves would do. So, that’s the premiss. Question, what would two ordinary husbands, who are prone to some leering and ogling as well as a lot of explicitly direct talk about sexuality, actually do were they to have a hall pass.
First of all, the two husbands are played by Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis. This is probably the pleasantest Owen Wilson character on screen for some time. He does have a wandering eye at times but he is essentially a decent man, a loving and caring husband and father. Sudeikis has the crasser role and gets himself far more tangled as the week goes on. Jenna Fischer is nice as Wilson’s wife. Christina Applegate is tougher and more complex as the other wife.
There are some oddball characters in the cast, especially the men’s poker group who want to observe how the hall pass week goes – British Stephen Merchant, co-writer of The Office, has a lot of funny moments, especially for those loyal few who stay for the final credits and scenes after the credits (a reward for not joining the mass exodus which is oblivious of the credits given to people who have worked on a film for a long time).
Nikki Whelan turns up as a lively and sympathetic bartender. Fans of that talented character actor, Richard Jenkins, will do a double take when they realise he is playing that randy friend and adviser who seems to have modelled his appearance, face and tan, and hat, on Freddy Krueger.
So, is a Hall Pass an excuse for no limits on sexual behaviour for a week? Obviously, self-indulgent and exploitative spouses don’t need a hall pass for breaking out. The Farrellys, from their basically moral standpoint, send up the would-be roués, their inflated opinions of themselves, their frequent faux pas and misjudgements of how women wish to be treated, their handling of temptation, and their realisation that there is good green grass on their side of the fence.
So, quite a number of good jokes and satiric moments, some disgusting moments (which anyone with a fastidious sensibility should beware of – but fastidious sensibilities do not go to Farrelly Brothers’ films anyway), some very traditional romantic moralising. Which means that the Farrellys can have their cake and eat it as well – inviting the raucous audience in for a farcical and crass comedy, then getting them to stop and think at the end (or at least one hopes so).
I AM NUMBER FOUR
(US, 2011, d. D.J, Caruso)
As this science-fiction cum high school romance for teenage audiences continued on, I found that my inner adolescent was touched and I rather enjoyed it.
By now, there must be theses being written all over the world on the popularity of the teenage action/romance movies and what are the ingredients for this popularity. The Twilight series comes to mind while watching this one, though ethereal vampires are much less exciting than the rugged Number Four (John Smith among many other names). 2010 saw Tomorrow When the War Began and I am Number Four could stand some comparisons with the battles against intruding troops, real in Tomorrow, Aliens in Number Four. Director D.J. Caruso made some adult thriller like The Salton Sea and Taking Sides. However, he moved into this current genre with Eagle Eye where the young Shia La Boeuf is being pursued by ominisurveillant enemies.
Apart from an eerie opening where menacing aliens dispose of a young man, the early part of the film is high school stuff, parties on Florida islands, high school hijinks, rivalries, bullying, attractions and misunderstandings and a potential rotter of a smug campus villain (whose father is the sheriff). You know there is going to be action, but this goes on for rather a while, establishing character, of course, and setting up the final confrontation.
Actually, this is rather like on of those films which have Soviet sleepers nicely ensconced in small town America waiting for the day that they are activated. But, this time, the sleepers are isolated youngsters from another planet, ten in all, who have the power to resist the evil aliens from their planet who are ambitious for, yes, world domination. The opening of the film is the death of Number
Three, so our story is about Number Four and his guardian.
Number Four is played with some vigour by Alex Pettyfer. He is fit and strong-jawed, the opposite of Robert Pattinson’s pasty and vapid vampire, Edward. It is easy to see why Sarah, whose hobby is photography, should fall for him. He also befriends Sam (Callum Mc Cauliffe) whose father has disappeared, probably abducted by the vicious aliens who felt that his researches were getting too close to them. Timothy Olyphant is Number Four’s very serious mentor and guardian. And there is a nice dog.
Then, the action starts, rather computer game like, but quite engrossing in its expected way. To the rescue comes an Amazonian heroine, blasting everyone in her way – these youngsters have increasingly superhuman powers (think The Fantastic Four). She is Jane Doe, Number Six, played with all stops out by Teresa Palmer. She sounds and looks like a young Naomi Watts (as she has in her other appearances) but could have called herself Nellie Melba or some such because she has retained her Australian accent – great to see the Australian alien coming to the rescue of the American alien, and female to boot. It becomes a touch ludicrous when animal monsters appear (including the pet dog) and scuffle, growl and bit to the death. But, monsters and monstrous aliens all immediately disintegrate when they are destroyed, so there is not much blood around.
Based on a novel by Pittacus Lore (now, there’s a name), this adventure has the potential for a movie franchise. Spoiler: the good aliens go up to Number Ten!
(US, 2010, d. Charles Ferguson)
For most of us, the world economic meltdown of 2008 seems incomprehensible as it raises so many questions as to how alleged financial experts could have been so wrong, so deceitful, so greedy, so amoral if not immoral, in their playing with, unscrupulously gambling, with people’s, institutions’ and nations’ money.
I would not like to have to do an exam on what I learned and remember from watching Inside Job, the details and the intricacies, let alone the terminologies, were too much for me. But, I am glad (in a morbid kind of way) that I have seen the film.
For those in the money know, there is a lot of information about how the American banks, especially, the bankers, the financial advisers to the Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations got their positions and maintained them, despite the upheavals. While many of the top people involved declined to be interviewed for the film, there are enough interviews to explain what went on. (The academics from American universities who sit or sat on bank boards, wrote highly paid papers and acted as government consultants, come across as an alarming group of mercenary types as well.)
Interestingly, the film opens with the crisis in Iceland and its bankruptcy in 2008 offering some background as to how this could come about. This gets us in the vein to explore the American situation and its consequences. As we listen (without always understanding the detail and keeping abreast of the events), we realise that we are not looking at a group of naive innocents who were doing their best in terms of honesty and open fair dealing. We are looking at a culture that fostered greed and risk, that was made up of many men (more than women) who aspired to a lavish, sometimes decadent, lifestyle, many of whom still do not have the decency to be honest and who remain in positions of power and influence. Statistics about bonuses (to which we have become accustomed, perhaps) are still appalling in the huge (sometimes ultra-huge) amounts that individuals walk away with even as Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs, AIG and so many others are in dire straits.
Communism collapsed at the end of the 1980s. Capitalism has been thoroughly shaken by this global meltdown. While human nature remains corruptible, we owe a debt to the media (which does not always avoid corruptibility either) which can produce articles which analyse and warn, interviews that alert us to dangers as well as showing confessions of wrongdoing, documentaries that assemble facts and figures which can inform and influence for change. This film could be a companion piece to Michael Moore’s 2009 Capitalism: A Love Story. (And for those who prefer a movie story that dramatises these issues, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (with Gordon Gecko’s reminder, ‘I once said, ‘Greed is good’; now it’s legal’.) and the drama of investment risk, Margin Call, with Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons.)
A LITTLE BIT OF HEAVEN
(US, 2010, d. Nicole Kessell)
Usually, a little bit of heaven refers to something here on earth. It does do this with this romantic comedy, but there is also some anticipation of life after death. We do not have many films from the mainstream which openly acknowledge the reality of death.
We are introduced to Marley (a bright Kate Hudson), a successful advertising executive with a wide range of friends, living a rather frivolous out-of-hours life with more than a touch of hedonism. She seems stressed but soon discovers she has colon cancer. How does she face the prospect of death? What must she do to make her life complete?
She has a comedy version of a near death experience, imagining God looking and sounding like Whoopi Goldberg (genial at least). Marley has lived a self-centred life, unable to make commitments. Her progress towards death is marked by some angry outbursts against friends and family, but she is moved to fall in love and to make steps towards reconciliation with everyone.
Kathy Bates and Treat Williams play her parents, bitter towards each other, but finding ways to share in their daughter’s final months. The doctor is played by Gael Garcia Bernal (not one of his best roles) as a joke-free specialist who succumbs to Marley’s love and changing for the better.
This plot is very similar to a Filipino film, 100 (where the dramatising of the final ritual is anointing of the sick and communion followed by the central character watching her wake contrasts with the more secular ritual of a Little Bit of Heaven where family and friends gather and have a New Orleans party – with When the Saints go Marching in – and Marley and God look on and Marley joins in the dance).
(France, 2009, d. Nicolas Filibert)
Nicolas Filibert has a strong reputation in France for his documentaries. He achieved international notice with his film about primary education, Etre et Avoir. This time he has visited a zoo.
Nenette sounds a pretty name for a little girl. But, this time it is for a 40 year old gorilla from Malaysia who has been living at the zoo all these decades, partnering three male gorillas over the period and giving birth to four offspring, one of whom is still at the zoo.
What are we doing looking at a gorilla for 70 minutes? Are we like the crowds of adults and children who come to watch the gorillas, chatting, laughing, wondering, enjoying? Something like that. Are we like the film-maker who tends to hold his camera for long takes on Nenette’s face, contemplating her, the difference between gazing and gaping? Much more of the film is like that.
As we contemplate Nenette, we wonder about her life in captivity (the cage does not look in any way attractive), her bored look, her limited intelligence (as explained by the voiceover), her eating yoghurt from cartons and opening bottles of water, unscrewing the lids.
There is commentary from experts on gorillas, their history and evolution, their life in the wild, their intelligence and behaviour. Gerard, who has worked with Nenette for 35 years has many ideas but also acknowledges how much we do not know of how gorillas tick.
Nenette offers an opportunity to think as we watch, about the lives of animals and about human treatment of animals.
NEVER LET ME GO
(UK, 2010, d. Mark Romanek)
One of the things that Never Let Me Go does is to make an audience realise the difference between much British and most American film-making. This British production, based on a sombre novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (who also wrote The Remains of the Day), shows a quiet, sometimes restrained British sensibility, suggestions of character and action rather than expansive explanations and the avoiding of a happy ending. It is in many ways a grim film, even a dour film.
The story is the reminiscences of Kathy (Carey Mulligan) who is watching a patient in a hospital. The rest of the film is principally flashbacks to her childhood and early adulthood. She belongs to a group of special children in a very British boarding school. They are sheltered and protected although so much of their life looks like the familiar styles of the 1940s and 1950s. They remain fearful of rumours of what the outside world is really like. They receive pep talks from the principal (Charlotte Rampling), although they are told something of what society has in mind for their lives by a sympathetic teacher (Sally Hawkins in a more serious role than usual). Kathy is friendly with Ruth and with the artistically inclined Tom. They form something of a trio.
As they grow up in the school, they prepare to go out into the world, their possibilities being carers or part of organ donor programs. That is their destiny. Which means that the science fiction elements of the narrative gradually creep up on the audience rather than being presented blatantly or sensationally. The opening information on screen is quietly statistical and sober.
Tom (Andrew Garfield) goes through adolescent issues and is attracted to Ruth (Keira Knightly) though he is quietly devoted to Kathy. He has given her a CD present with a song, Never Let Me Go, which she treasures. However, she is reticent in her responses and wittingly or unwittingly allows Ruth to manipulate Tom’s affections and behaviour. This continues as they go out to The Cottages, awaiting what their lives are meant to be.
Then, years pass as Kathy becomes a carer and loses touch with Ruth and Tom. When she does re-connect, situations have changed drastically. Ruth is making an assessment of her life and wants to make good the damage she felt she did to Kathy and Tom in the past. Tom clutches at the possibility of making something of a life with Kathy. But, given the destiny of their lives, is this possible? A visit to the principal and to the art teacher of their school provides pessimistic answers. They tell the two youngsters that the art that was collected in their school days was not to look into their souls and understand them, but to see whether they actually had souls.
This means that Never Let Me Go is a more subtle drama than we usually see, taking a rather indirect approach to characters and themes. This means it may be too low-key, even boring, for audiences who expect films to be more keyed up. For audiences who appreciate something different and quietly persuasive, this may be a satisfying and thoughtful, and rueful, experience.
NO STRINGS ATTACHED
(US, 2011, d. Ivan Reitman)
Ivan Reitman used to direct some punchy comedies, Ghostbusters, Dave, Junior, Twins and Kindergarten Cop, and he brings some of that punch to what is essentially a variation on the contemporary romantic comedy conventions. And, this is a 21st comedy, so few inhibitions about sexuality and open expression and language.
While most of these films start by immersing the audience in the contemporary secular, sometimes values-free zones of modern relationships, they usually show the infatuations, the sexual activity, the mess-ups, the regrets and, then, the final acknowledgement that true love and commitment are what really matters. Older audiences, even parents who might have acted like this in their younger days, may feel a bit judgmental, even censorious. The younger audiences are being taken through something of their own free-wheeling experiences and being led to some awareness of a more authentic loving relationship. The title explains it – and, of course, at the end, denies it. Unattached loneliness versus committed attachment.
This film has the advantage of its stars. While Ashton Kutcher is often mocked for his performances, he keeps coming back and often proves himself a genial screen presence. This time he has what used to be the more feminine role. He is the one that is looking for love, is easily hurt by lack of commitment, and really wants fidelity in love. Natalie Portman has been a strong actress since she was a child (and now has an Oscar to affirm this). She takes on what has been the more traditional masculine role. She is the busy professional (he merely works at a television station on a school soap) and is a doctor. She says she is not the feeling type. It is she who proposes a rather cold and detached, even mercenary, arrangement for their sexual encounters (not even companionship).
We know the rest. How will she become more human? How will he deal with rejection? How will they discover what a more authentic love really is? It is useless to say that this has all been done before, and many times. The theme is universal and perennial. Whether we like the stars, the script and believe them is what matters.
SEASON OF THE WITCH
(US, 2010, d. Dominic Sena)
Back to the Middle Ages. We might never have expected to see Nicolas Cage there, but sure enough, he is a crusader serving God by sending as many infidels to the other place as he can. We have seen Ron Perlman in the Middle Ages, in The Name of the Rose (with which this film has some similarities of plot, monasteries and manuscripts) and here he is again, ditto re crusading and dispatching the enemy. While Cage and Perlman are in the 14th century, they have disconcertingly out of place 21st century American accents and slang. Even British actors, Stephen Campbell Moore and Stephen Graham, have some American twanging.
But, this is one of those medieval adventures which rely on ecclesiastical gobbledigook, the execution of witches (hanging here), Latin incantations to break spells and illuminated manuscripts which demons want to destroy (before the prayers destroy them).
After the death of the witches, we are treated to some computer generated computer battles, all in the name of the Church, which Cage and Perlman rebel against after the deaths of women and children. They go AWOL. But, this leads them to a village where the population is dying of the plague, especially, the Cardinal leader (Christopher Lee under same large boils make-up). The only solution seems to be taking a witch to a monastery in the mountains and find the last remaining copy of the book with the spell-breaking prayers.
This leads to something of a medieval road movie, foggy forests, attacks by wolves with supernatural teeth and jaws and, quite excitingly, having to get horses, knights and a wagon with the witch, across a long rotting bridge across one of the deepest chasms you have seen.
The finale is a battle against the demon who had possessed the alleged witch and the bodies of the dead monks in the scriptorium were busy speedily copying the precious manuscript.
Director Dominic Sena had worked with Nicolas Cage in Gone in Sixty Seconds and is more at home in contemporary dramas, Kalifornia, Swordfish, Whiteout. They all don’t seem to be quite at home in the 14th century, which means that the film is something of a tongue-in-cheek costume time-passer.
(US, 2010, d. Randall Wallace)
Not a film about bureaucracy. Secretariat is the name of an American racehorse of the 1970s. It was a great champion. Secretariat was not the name the owners wished for it. It was imposed by the racing regulations for naming horses. Modern US audiences may not know the horse. Non- American audiences may well never had heard of it. The film joins the list of films about champion horses and jockeys like National Velvet, Phar Lap and Seabiscuit.
While writer-director Randall Wallace wrote the heroics of Braveheart and directed The Man in the Iron Mask and We Were Soldiers, this is a fairly standard picture of racing, training, opposition and rivalries and the emergence of a horse which won the Triple Crown of the Kentucky Derby... and was the horse of the year.
Not that Secretariat showed its qualities from the start. It was also idiosyncratic, staying at the back and then making spectacular runs to the finish. The human story involves Diane Lane as the horse’s determined owner and, of all people, John Malkovich as its French trainer. Dylan Walsh is the husband who tends to agree with his brother-in-law, Dylan Baker, that it would be better to sell the horse to pay off family debts. James Cromwell is a potential buyer. Nestor Serrano is a very loud-mouthed, vain and misogynist owner who is particularly offensive during press conferences.
So, while there is domestic drama in the background, the family learning to support their mother, the main action is how Secretariat fares in the initial races and the question whether it has the capacity to take on longer distance races, let alone win. But, because we are sitting watching a film called Secretariat, we know that the horse will triumph before the final credits. There is quite some excitement, as always, in watching the actual races and seeing how the horse triumphs.
WASTED ON THE YOUNG
(Australia, 2010, d. Ben C. Lucas)
We all know that youth is wasted on the young. This look at high school students (in Perth) seems to prove that this is the case, especially when they themselves become ‘wasted’.
It was something of a surprise to find that the students we are watching are not from poor homes or inner city slums. They are from quite wealthy homes (which boast of their affluence) and attend an expensive private school – demonstrating very little credit for their educational abilities. As with films like Larry Clark’s quite scathing look at New York youngsters and their behaviour (especially with drugs and sexuality), Kids (1995), there are no adults to be seen in this film. Parents are mentioned but absent. The principal’s office is seen but not the principal. There seem to be no teachers or supervisors, especially when brutal fights (signalled by instant multiple text messaging) break out in the school grounds. No police.
So, is this a film for the kinds of characters shown in the film? Or, is it a film for parents or teachers? It certainly would be interesting to be a fly on the wall were students, parents and teachers to watch the film together and then discuss it. And to hear how ‘realistic’ it is. Come to think of it, variations on this kind of story make their way to newspapers and television reports.
The audience has to be alert at times as the narrative is not simply linear, especially with the opening and three boys leaving a girl on the hills near the sea (our initial suspicions are later justified), then the plot building up to this episode (with some later sequences clarifying what happened). In fact, there are a number of sudden, without warning, shifts in time.
Basically, this is a story of two boys in their final year at school who become stepbrothers as their parents marry. Zack (Alex Russell in a credible interpretation of high school arrogant bullying, presumption and untouchability) is the swimming jock, centre of popularity and unscrupulous sexually. Darren (Oliver Ackland, looking a bit too old for his high school age but presenting a serious and brooding, basically decent young man) is preoccupied with his computers and science project. The other central characters is Xandrie (Adelaide Clemens who has the difficult role of being nice but then a very hard done by victim) who is keen on Darren but is set on by Zack and his swimming champion buddy, Brook (T.J. Power who does arrogant and nasty, especially in his violent attack on Darren, all too obnoxiously).
There are a number of other characters, friends and girls, who show how shallow young people’s outlooks can be, keen on the good time, voyeurs of brutality, gathering like sheep at the ring of their mobiles. (The film is constantly reminding us that we live in a technological age and the young are dependent on social networking.)
Finally, there are echoes of the Columbine High School shootings and the inherent violence underlying arrogance and exploitation even at high school level. Some commentators have said that the writer-director is too pessimistic about today’s young people. Maybe, but his drama is meant to mirror and to warn.
THE WAY BACK
(US, 2010, d. Peter Weir)
Peter Weir has always been a careful film-maker. It is almost eight years since he made his previous film, Master and Commander. He is attentive to detail and chooses only projects that interest him. This is a story of endurance and survival, a tale of a gruelling and physically demanding journey that may take its toll on audience patience and endurance. It is not easy viewing.
It seems that the author of the book on which the film is based did not actually make the journey he described. It was made by someone else. The central character is a young Polish patriot who is arrested by the Soviets in 1940, interrogated and denounced by his wife (under torture). He refuses to sign any document incriminating him and is transported to a gulag in Siberia where, as the commandant explains, nature itself imprisons the inmates.
Life in the gulag is one of slave labour in the freezing and blizzard-prone forests and in the choking mines. Janus, the young Pole (played by Jim Sturgess) is determined to escape and is encouraged by an actor inmate (Mark Strong). An opportunity arises and a group begin their hazardous long way back. The group consists of Janus, an American engineer, Mr Smith (a grizzled Ed Harris), a Russian criminal with tattoos of Lenin and Stalin on his chest (Colin Farrell playing non-heroic), a priest, an artist, a chef and a young man who has contracted night blindness.
The aim is to reach India where the British are in control. We share the harsh details of the trek of 4000 miles, through Siberian forests in winter, through a mosquito infected lake area in summer, across the Mongolian border into the deserts, then into the mountains, through Tibet into India. Hunger, dehydration, cold and heat almost defeat them but they don’t. Not all survive. Along the way, they encounter a young Polish girl who has fled a communal farm (Saorsie Ronan). She brings a touch of humanity to each of the men, drawing out their stories and enabling them to realise that they do not know each other very well at all.
Weir is also interested in the motivations of each of the men. The criminal, who had dreams of escaping to America, finds that he really cannot leave his homeland where he feels secure. Mr Smith is to make contact with an American delegation and go home. It is Janus who has to find his way back home – the significant question of the title is the way back to what and to where – to meet his wife again and be reconciled with her. His is a quest for forgiveness and peace. It takes a long time.
The film ends with a recapitulation of the Communist decades from the end of the War until the collapse of the Soviet Union and Poland’s freedom. Watching the film is not an easy experience but the themes stay with you and are well worth reflecting on.