SIGNIS REVIEWS MARCH 2013
21 AND OVER
GI JOE: RETALIATION
GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD
HANSEL AND GRETEL
HARA-KIRI: DEATH OF A SAMURAI
HYDE PARK ON HUDSON
INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE, The
IN THE FOG
JACK THE GIANT SLAYER
PERFORMANCE/ A LATE QUARTET
RETURN TO NIM’S ISLAND
UNDERGROUND: THE JULIAN ASSANGE STORY
21 AND OVER
US, 2013, 93 minutes, Colour.
Miles Teller, Skylar Astin, Justin Chon, Sarah Wright.
Directed by Josh and Scott Moore.
Having seen the trailer, I had fairly low expectations – and these were fulfilled. Although, to be fair, after all the extravagant crassness, it does veer towards something of a moral tone and hopes for better behaviour.
They say these days that 75 is the new 65 etc. Does that mean that 21 is the new 11? Well, this film does seem to indicate this. Two friends arrive at a college to celebrate the 21st birthday of their old friend, a Chinese American who is about to have an interview for his studies of medicine (supervised by his father who loathes the two friends).
Well, you guessed it. They take him out and not only does he get ultra-drunk, he behaves in an idiotic, lewd and stupidly crass ways. One of the friends has some sense, the other is an American Yahoo, preoccupied by drink, drink, drink and sex and any other mad behaviour. Actually, Miles Teller is quite a skillful actor and certainly portrays his ‘character’ accurately. He knows what he is doing in creating this yahoo. (I suppose he has had plenty of practice – he is appearing in a number of similarly themed films including the 2012 film Project, which didn’t seem to have any redeeming features.) Poor Justin Chon, he has to spend most of the film being an idiot – humiliating for him.
For someone from Mars visiting this planet, thinking that this was normal human behaviour, they would be extremely puzzled as they watched it. Is this what it is to be human? They mightn’t last until the last ten minutes when some more sense gets into the screenplay.
Does it mean that today’s 11 year old boys are going to be like this in ten year’s time?
Oliver Ackland, Jack Thompson, Rose Mc Ivor.
Directed by Richard Gray.
Richard Gray’s previous film, Summer Coda, told a story of a woman returning home from the US to a town in north west Victoria, near Swan Hill. It looked beautiful and captured the atmosphere of the area with a humane story.
This time Gray still stays west of Melbourne but on the Bellarine Peninsula. A man returns from the US again and has to deal with the past. BUT, this is a film about Australian Rules which ought to be of interest to all follwers of the code but is certainly for fans west of Geelong. However, given the fierce loyalties to the AFL, the VFL and local clubs and some narrowly parochial attitudes, it might not draw in the audiences. Distribution in Melbourne itself was in only three cinemas and with miNimum advertising. I just checked, after a week it has disappeared. What a pity.
For football fans, the film has about five substantial sequences of matches, finals and grand-finals, centering on the Tigers’ Club at Torquay. There are practice sessions, club meetings, pep talks. And the main pep is given vigorously by coach, Jack Thompson, going back to his role in The Club.
But, the main thing is a human story. There is a party sequence at the opening which is crucial to the plot but it comes too early for us to work out who’s who and what actually happens. It does get sorted out eventually, but keeps us wondering whether we missed something.
Tom (Oliver Ackland) is the Torquay star but is poor in discipline and team spirit (still a worry for football and cricket!). Caught up in a scandal (that’s the part that is not clear until quite late), he goes to the US for ten years as a coach. When he receives news that the coach has died, he decides to come home for the funeral and to meet the key characters from the past. Into that framework, we have a great number of flashbacks which tell more of Tom’s story, including those matches, than might have been expected and presents him in a better light). While the scandal proves to be significant for those involved, it is not nearly as strong as many of the scandalous stories of sports celebrities that we are treated to in media news, articles and radio and TV reports.
It is a matter of immaturity, rash behaviour, publicity, consequences for lives and reputations. The latter part of the film is quite interesting in showing how the main characters deal with it ten years later.
The film is quite watchable, has a good cast, with Jack Thompson leading the way in ra-ra challenges to his players, and the newcomer coaches at the end are unable to match his fire and expertise.
And the title? The film tells us that it is an episode of drunkenness as well as a top game and performance. Both are featured.
Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe, Jeffrey Wright, Catherine Zeta- Jones, Barry Pepper, Kyle Chandler.
Directed by Allen Hughes.
Broken City is a film about urban corruption. This makes the film quite irrelevant, with so much political corruption in so many countries as well as in the administration of significant world cities.
Mark Wahlberg plays, Billy, a police officer who, at the beginning of the film, is standing over a victim who has been shot. A court case follows and he is acquitted, especially because of a lack of evidence. However, he is in good standing with the chief of police (Jeffrey Wright), but he is also being selected for jobs by the mayor (Russell Crowe), who has a hold over him in connection with the evidence of the killing.
The scene having been set, seven years pass. Billy now runs a private detective agency, with an efficient secretary whose main tasks seem to be collecting payment from outstanding indebted clients. Billy has a quiet home life, with a partner, an actress starring in an independent film, and has given up alcohol for five years. What could go wrong?
The answer, of course, is more corruption. When he is employed by the mayor to follow his wife (Catherine Zeta- Jones), he shows his skills in several engaging sequences, but he also uncovers a conspiracy which leads to murder. There is a buildup to the final confrontation between Billy and the mayor. Who has a hold over whom?
Russell Crowe gives a solid performance as the mayor, confident in his power and in his abilities, charming on the surface but continually ruthless. Mark Wahlberg does a variation on his theme of the lower-middle class man with a mission, ambiguous in his background, but with an inherent integrity. Catherine Zeta- Jones is integral to the plot but has comparatively few scenes.
The main part of the action takes place over only a few days, the final days in the campaign for the election of the mayor, the mayor during his utmost to please the public for re-election, even getting the city’s budget into the black, a substantial surplus, gained from selling a housing estate in the city. His opponent (Barry Pepper), makes accusations against the mayor, debates him in public, and has to deal with the murder of his campaign manager.
In many ways, the material is familiar, but has an interest because of intrigues, conspiracies, and dramatic confrontations. The film was directed by Allen Hughes, one of the Hughes brothers who directed such films as Dead Presidents and the Jack the Ripper thriller, From Hell.
GI JOE: RETALIATION
US, 2013, 97 minutes, Colour.
Dwayne Johnson, Channing Tatum, Bruce Willis, Jonathan Pryce, D.J. Cotrona, Ray Stevenson, Adrienne Palicki.
Directed by Jon M. Chu.
While the first GI Joe film, despite the explosions, shootouts and mayhem, was something of a guilty pleasure, this one is not so pleasurable and may make you feel guilty!
And, there are only a few of the cast from the original, mainly Channing Tatum. When it was rumoured that he was going to be killed off and fans protested, the company added some extra scenes – and then he is killed off.
The star of this show is Dwayne Johnson who has made quite a movie career after his wrestling life. He is a reliable screen presence, looks tough (his code name is Roadblock) but he can do family and nice (after all, he was in Tooth Fairy with Julie Andrews).
While we see the GI Joes in action in Korea, we see them as the victims of a conspiracy and attacked in Pakistan and being blamed for the death of the Pakistani president. What has happened is that an arch-villain has the technology to disguise himself as the President of the United States and so take over, call a summit for a nuclear-free world and then threaten all the world powers with his own more immediate and devastating weapons (with a destruction of central London to prove it).
But, most of the film is getting the GI Joes back together to take out the false president. Much of a muchness with other such adventures, except a lot more CGI – and explosions. Gung-ho would only be a mild description of the action.
Oh, and they recruit the founder of the GI Joes, Joe himself, something of a cameo for Bruce Willis in Die Hard mode. And they have distinguished British actor, Jonathan Pryce as the good president and the bad president.
It’s more or less like The Expendables but with some James Bond megalomaniac type of villains who want to conquer the world.
Laura Michelle Kelly, Ronan Keating, Magda Szubanski, Hugo Johnstone Burt, Dustin Clare, Pia Miranda.
Directed by Mark Lamprell.
Goddess is a 21st century Australian musical. This description should indicate whether an audience would like it, respond well to it, or not. It is definitely a film for those who like colorful comedies, singing and dancing. It is definitely not a film for those who do not warm to musicals at all.
The film has the advantage of a lively performance from Laura Michelle Kelly, star of Mary Poppins on London’s West End. She has a charming vitality on screen, in performance, in singing and dancing, not without touches of irony. The film also has so-far, only acting role for former Boyzone group member and a popular singer all over the English-speaking world, Ronan Keating. His is the supporting role, the husband who is away from home, his particular work being environmental, sending him to Antarctica for whale exploration and recording whale sounds.
One reason for seeing the film could be the performance by Magda Szubanski. She is a long way from Babe or from Sharon visiting Kath and Kim. Here she is the haughty, ultra-haughty advertising executive who instills fear in all her staff. She enjoys playing the grand dame.
Laura Michelle Kelly is Elspeth, wife of James (Keating) and mother of the most obstreperous twins you are likely to see on screen. Her husband gives her a cam-recorder which she places in her kitchen – which leads to her singing to camera, having a patient supermarket friend set up her connection for broadcast, finding she has some fans and eventually getting the call to come from Hobart to Sydney to be the ‘goddess’ in on-line ads for ladylike computers.
There is some satire on the world of advertising and standards, but Elspeth discovers how ambitious she is. But,lots of complications arise, including nannies for the twins, unexpected returns by James, her friends in Hobart watching and seeing more than Elspeth intended on screen…
It’s all very light, songs popping up all the time, especially Elspeth at her sink, where she can thing…
The satirical song about CEO bitches does work well and Elspeth plays it as a corporate femme fatale.
Some cinema chains are advertising Girls Night Out with special screenings of films with goody bags and refreshments. Goddess is a Girls Night out flick!
A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD
US, 2013, 98 minutes, Colour.
Bruce Willis, Jai Courtney, Sebastian Koch.
Directed by John Moore.
It’s Die Hard 5 – and a reminder that it is now twenty five years since Bruce Willis had a hit with the original action drama that led to a franchise. While he looks a bit older and has less hair than he used to, Bruce Willis seems much the same. He flares into action whether he really knows what’s going on or not. He still has that wry smile and can deliver an ironic line or two when the script offers him one.
Apart from that, this one has a plot which is farthest-fetched, both implausible and, for survival, most improbable.
The setting is Moscow (with the film shot mainly in Hungary) where Bruce’s son, John Mc Clane Jr, is in more than a spot of trouble, in gaol and about to go into court. (He is played by Australian, Jai Courtney, a bit of a stolid young man.) Bruce hears about it and is on the next plane to Moscow to rescue his boy whom he has not spoken to for years. (There is a daughter who lovingly bosses her father about.)
But, what Bruce doesn’t know, and we do, is that his son is a CIA operative and is in the middle of an operation to rescue a Russian oligarch/scientist from prison where his former friend and now rival-enemy wants him to stay.
Within about ten minutes we have a car chase, through Moscow’s main streets, highways and side roads, that must have been a bid for the Guinness Book of Records for the biggest number of cars crashed, smashed and trashed in a twenty minute sequence. While watching in disbelief at the most reckless driving you might see, it seemed umpteen cars were destroyed – but then you lose count.
After a couple of respites, there is a huge twist and a climax with a helicopter on top of a building that is pretty belief-defying as well, more smashes and deaths all round – except for John and John Jr who are now reconciled. Nothing, says Bruce, that a father won’t do for his son.
We see quite a bit of Moscow. We see plenty of shooting – and more. We see Bruce, not yet 60, though close, so why can’t he do all these stunts. And that is where that 98 minutes went.
HANSEL AND GRETEL: WITCHHUNTERS
Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Famke Janssen, Peter Stormare, Thomas Mann.
Directed by Tommy Wirkola.
A bash-em-up actioner.
There are plenty of weapons, some guns, especially a gatling-like gun, but this is a fists-and-all show. Of course, it is not meant to be taken seriously. It is for audiences who like gore jokes and who like this kind of graphic novel, kind of computer game mentality all-in brawling between humans and witches.
Some films are character-driven. Not this one. Hansel and Gretel, despite the pathos of the prologue when they are left in the forest and are threatened by the wicked witch (before she finishes up in the oven). Actually, Jeremy Renner is a rather stolid Hansel and Gemma Arterton a charmless Gretel.
Some films are plot-driven. Not this one. It is just find the witches, do battle and destroy them.
This one is special effects and action-driven. Not as wide-ranging as the 2011 Red Riding Hood, certainly not as stylish as 2012 Mirror, Mirror or Snow White and the Huntsman.
The Norwegian director, Tommy Hirkole, directed the cult-horror film, Dead Snow, with Nazi zombies in the Arctic. He brings this sensibility to the classic fairy tale.
HARA- KIRI: DEATH OF A SAMURAI
Koji Yakusho, Munetaka Aoki, Naoto Takenake,
Directed by Takashi Miike.
Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai has a strong reputation, especially with the career of the director, Takashi Miike and his films like 13 Assassins and his quite different treatment of a samurai story. The film is a remake of the 1962,.
This is rather a stately film, a film about the Samurai traditions and their meaning rather than a display of samurai battles and sword contests. There is something towards the end but, even then, as the hero fights with a bamboo sword, it is something of a parody and a critique.
In fact, the action takes place in the 19th century, 1617-1634, a long period of peace where warriors have little or no place in society, where they have become impoverished with no possibilities of employment.
The film opens with a samurai coming to the local lord to gain permission to kill himself in the official’s courtyard. With the focus during the opening credits on past Samurai glory and icons, it is clear that there is a questions about hara-kiri, considered a most worthy suicide, and its place in the honour and glory tradition of Japan. (And its continuing history even to the kamikaze pilots of World War II.)
The official decides to tell the warrior the story of a young Samurai who had previously asked for the same privilege. This occasions a flashback to the young man, his story, his plea for some money for his wife and child and the issue of whether a samurai can bluff authorities for gain or not – and whether he deserves to die.
The older Samurai listens to the story and takes us on a more detailed flashback of the young man’s story, his status, his marriage, his sick wife and baby and his desperate plea to the official.
It is here that the Samurai takes his stand, challenging authority and tradition – and some scenes of martial swordsmanship.
This means that the film is more a portrait of characters, interactions, emotions as well as the challenge to authority and tradition.
The film looks beautiful, stately, as noted before. It is a film of shots that last longer than might be expected, asking the audience to reflect on what they see and on what they think.
(It was post-produced in 3D – not very necessary – which means that when it is projected it may be too dark because of the process and the glasses and it is better to watch it in its 2D print, or remove the glasses while watching.)
US, 2013, 122 minutes, Colour.
Saiorse Ronan, William Hurt, Jake Abel, Max Irons, Diane Kruger, Frances Fisher.
Directed by Andrew Niccol.
Quite an interesting science-fiction film, one with more thinking than action. The original novel was written by Stephenie Meyer, much better known as the author of the Twilight novels. She moves from vampire communities to futuristic alien/body-snatching communities. Once again people with significant differences can exist within the ordinary human community. Except that, this time, the aliens want to take over the humans as they have done on other planets.
Earth is a particular challenge, a dark planet with violent, greedy and wasteful people. At the opening of the film, the aliens boast that they have been able to create a perfect society, where nobody does any wrong, honesty is the only policy and hurting others is not part of the ethos.
Actually, this raises some philosophical issues right from the introduction. It concerns everything happening happily in our world where individual freedom has been taken over and nothing wrong can happen. This is akin to those desperate and suffering questions about God and why God does not intervene to make everything go well for us, that people do not harm others, that there be no pain and suffering, especially in illness and death. One of the morals of this story is that people want to be able to live in freedom, without the intervention of the aliens in any ‘god-like way’, to make mistakes, to love and assert themselves, not to be body- (and soul) snatched.
Whether audiences will contemplate these issues and see the connections with the film’s plot, one wonders. But, the foundation for thought is there.
This has been quite a theme for writer-director, Andrew Niccol, over 25 years. Audiences did realise these issues in his screenplay for The Truman Show. It features in the films he has directed, the futuristic Gattaca, the artificial, computer-personality, SimOne, the ruthless arms sales in Lord of War and separated communities in an artificial future in In Time.
At the core of the film is the excellent young actress, Saoirse Ronan. She has the difficult task (which she makes quite credible) of playing Melanie, a strong young woman amongst a remnant of humans who have not been taken over. However, she is captured and an alien soul implanted in her. Melanie’s body is the host for the alien. She becomes Wanderer, shortened to Wanda. However, Melanie is still alive within her and speaks to Wanda, confronting her as she gives information about the human remnant from Melanie’s memories to the official Seeker, Diane Kruger (interesting casting giving the pursuant and interrogating role to a woman rather than a man). This makes, of course, for drama and for interesting conversations between the two. It becomes a touch ludicrous when the still teenage Melanie becomes jealous of Wanda’s expressions of affection which are not Melanie’s.
Much of the film takes place in vast caves where a remnant community survive, hiding from the Seekers and shielding their bodies from being given to alien souls. The leader of the community is played by William Hurt, a benign and wise leader. Amongst the community are Melanie’s little brother (Chandler Canterbury), Jared (Max Irons) who loved Melanie and Ian (Jake Abel) who is attracted to Wanda. It is interesting to look at how this community survives underground, with giant reflectors on the walls giving sunlight for crops to grow. The young men venture out to steal from the supermarkets (where everything is free and people are nice and sweet). This does lead to some action as the Seeker pursues one of their trucks and there are chases and crashes.
However, this is a personal drama of Melanie and her struggle for autonomy within Wanda, a community drama of polite body snatchers, except for the Seeker who is conflicted and breaks the bounds of violence in her obsessive pursuit.
The Host is serious-minded, has some humour, especially in Melanie’s jealousy, but comes down on the side of human fragility and freedom rather than a kind of passive heaven on earth.
HYDE PARK ON HUDSON
UK, 2012, 94 minutes, Colour.
Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Samuel West, Olivia Colman, Olivia Williams.
Directed by Roger Michel.
Three important quotes from the film: ‘People pretend not to see what they do see’, ‘People see what they want to see’, ‘It was a time of secrets’. More of these later.
On the one hand, it is a pity that this film comes in the wake of The King’s Speech. It doesn’t have the wide scope and human story of that film. On the other hand, the advantage of its following The King’s Speech is that many audiences may well want to see it because of their interest in the characters of George VI and Queen Elizabeth.
Not that Hyde Park on Hudson is principally about them. Their visit to President Franklin D. Roosevelt before the war is the centerpiece of the drama and is well explored. But the film is principally about Roosevelt and his personality, politics and relationships.
Back to the quotations. Some people have been disedified by the information of the celebrated president’s relationships with a number of women. Older people who had John F. Kennedy on a pedestal were disedified, even dismayed, to learn something of the truth about his personal life. But, in this film, it is Roosevelt himself who notes that people pretend not to see what they do see, for a variety of reasons, moral, religious, ethical, political, personal. All are in play in this film in which, it should be noted, everything is presented in a very genteel, 1930s way and controlled language, in terms of the women in the president’s life and in the references to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. These observations reinforce the next statement, that some people see only what they want to see. We do expect people in public office to be completely moral and respectable, though the younger generations may have become more disillusioned (or realistic) about the flaws in character of those who have been put on pedestals. No more evident has this been in the ongoing revelations about sexual abuse in society in general and in the priesthood in particular.
These reflections may seem to give the film more depth than it might appear to have, or even that the film might claim. However, looking at it in this light, listening to the very well-written and intelligent screenplay and appreciating the excellent performances, the film has a great deal going for it. And, for those who might not be absorbed in the way just described, it is always interesting and entertaining.
Bill Murray might seem a strange choice for Franklin D. Roosevelt. But, because the film is showing his strengths (a great personal charm and humour as well as shrewd diplomacy, as well as some moments which remind us of his concern for Americans during the Depression and the New Deal) as well as his flaws and his weaknesses for women (fostered by the personality and other interests of his wife, Eleanor), Murray is a good choice.
The episodes are related by a distant Roosevelt cousin, Daisy, on whose letters, discovered after her death, the screenplay is based. Laura Linney, who can be both tough and delicate on screen, narrates the story and moves from shy recluse caring for her aunt to a fixture in Hyde Park to a love for the president and shocked by his infidelity to her. Olivia Williams does a fine turn as Eleanor, strong-minded, strong-willed, with an ironic sense of humour – the screenplay lifting blame from her for her husband’s roving eye. Elizabeth Wilson is the perfect embodiment of the controlling matriarch whose house Hyde Park is.
But, audiences will be fascinated by the portrayal of the king and queen and will accept the move from Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter. Samuel West is excellent as Bertie, nervous about the visit and its purpose, irritated by his stutter (he was still working with Lionel Logue at this time), not sure what to make of the Americans, but willing to be agreeable, placating his wife, and finding that he enjoyed Roosevelt’s company, it all climaxing in his eating a hot dog at the official picnic and being photographed. Thanking Roosevelt afterwards, he referred to what has now become a significant phrase for American-British? interactions, the ‘special relationship’.
Olivia Colman brings new insights into the Queen. She is aware of her dignity, not particularly keen on Americans of American ways (she is shocked by the serving of hot dogs), something of a snob. She is also conscious of stepping unexpectedly into the shoes of the Windsors as monarchs. She doesn’t really like the formalities and expectations of her. In fact, the protocols, even in the US, seem rather rigid. She sounds, in the film, like her daughter in real life – which reminds us that Queen Elizabeth has been living this kind of life, giving these public performances for sixty years without complaint.
If audiences do not expect another The King’s Speech, they will find much to enjoy and think about in Hyde Park on the Hudson.
THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE
Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Jim Carrey, Alan Arkin, Olivia Wilde.
Directed by Don Scardino.
A film about magic does not necessarily mean ‘magical’.
This is the story of a boy who dreamed of being a magician – and achieved his goal, but with some melancholy results. Bullied at school, but with the help of a good friend, he grows up to call himself Burt Wonderstone, his friend becoming his stage partner, Anton Marvelton. Together, they become a long-standing attraction at Las Vegas with their own theatre (and manager, James Gandolfini).
One of the difficulties for the film is the casting of Steve Carell as Burt, who becomes more and more unpleasant, egotistical, presumptuously womanizing, antagonistic towards his partner who leaves, self-absorbed and unwilling to face reality. That is not the kind of image we associate with Carell, which, despite his effort in creating this obnoxious character, is difficult to accept. On the other hand, Steve Buscemi is quite convincing as Anton.
But, if Burt is egotistical, he is out-manouevred and out-ego’d by a street magician, into pain feats, played with his usual intensity by Jim Carrey. The challenge and rivalry, and his being abandoned by his manager, helps to bring Burt to his senses (well, almost). He has clashed with his partner, Jane (Olivia Wilde) and has discovered his mentor, Rance Holloway (an engaging performance from Alan Arkin), who is now in a nursing home.
Of course, this is a story of a comeback trail and comeuppance of the bragging street magician. It has many amusing moments, but it is the not quite very incredible Burt who is part of the problem with engaging fully with the film.
IN THE FOG
Vladimir Svirskiy, Vladislav Abashin, Sergei Kolesov
Directed by Sergei Losznitsa.
In the Fog is based on a celebrated Belarus novel by Vasili Bykov, written in 1989 at the end of the Societ era (though Belarus is still ruled by a dictator of the old school and style). It has been brought to the screen in the visual and dramatic style of films made from the 1950s in the then Soviet union. It is very serious indeed, with its story of the journal German occupation of Belarus during World War II, showing life in a village, the domination of the Germans, the hanging of hostages, the work of the resistance.
However, the focus is on a man in his thirties, a farmer, who is arrested with the hostages but allowed to leave, escaping his hanging. Villagers are suspicious, as is his wife. Eventually, two men from the resistance turn up, obviously charged with killing him. This does not happen. One of the partisans is wounded, the other goes foraging and is arrested by the local police and shows them where the resistance leader is.
The central character carries the wounded partisan through the forest. He also takes the opportunity to reflect on what has happened to him, a lengthy flashback: his initial arrest, interrogation, torture, but his being allowed to go free after the German commandant wanted him to spy on the partisans. In letting him go free, not hanging him, he has made him bait for the partisans to come to hunt him down, which is what happens.
Surviving in the forest, the farmer makes his way back home, the two partisan members dead. This means that the farmer will go back to the same suspicions, possibly being a target again of the resistance group, possibly being at the mercy of the German commandant. This is symbolized at the end by fog beginning to roll in and submerge the forest, the farmer making his way through the fog.
The style of former Soviet films was often very slow, long takes, focus on the faces of the characters, plenty of time for audiences to think. This is certainly the case here and audiences used to more rapid editing may find watching the film and gazing at it rather more difficult than they might have expected.
Nevertheless, it is a different picture of World War II in Northern Europe, a picture of the experience of people in a Belarus village, a character study as well as an invitation to reflect on the meaning of war, loyalty and betrayal, personal integrity, even an implicit reflection on human nature, heroism, truth with the image of the accused man carrying a kind of cross with the body of his accuser.
JACK THE GIANT SLAYER
UK, 2013, 113 minutes, Colour.
Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ewan Mc Gregor, Stanley Tucci, Bill Nighy, Ian Mc Shane, Eddie Marsan.
Directed by Bryan Singer.
After Snow White and the Huntsman, Mirror Mirror, and Hansel and Gretel: Witchhunters, what were we to expect of this version of Jack the Giant Slayer. According to Wikipedia, it is a British fairytale about King Arthur’s time but does not appear in print until the 18th century. But ‘Fie, Fie, Foe, Fum’ are in Shakespeare’s King Lear. They are repeated in the film but not with, ‘I smell the blood of an Englishman’, rather,’ I know where the thunder comes’. And then there is Jack and the Beanstalk! Which also appears here. However, the modern screenwriters have taken some of the elements from both stories – and left a great deal out.
Be that as it may, this is a very straightforward telling of its tale, and all the better for that.
It is directed by Bryan Singer, who began with small-budget films and then made some of the X- Men films as well as Batman Begins, so he knows what he is doing with spectacle. This one abounds in action and fine special effects and can be seen in 3D.
The look is medieval, a castle with turrets and moats, a surrounding town and farmlands. Immediately, the story and its verse are told to Jack by his farmer father and to the Princess Isabelle by her mother. It tells of the vanquishing of the giants, back to their home above the clouds and peace reigning while the crown that governs humans and giants remains on earth. So far, so good.
One day, Jack (a gangly, nice Nichlas Hoult) encounters the Princess (a feisty Eleanor Tomlinson) and saves her from some yokels. She is promised to Duke Roderick (a bewigged, English-accented Stanley Tucci, oozing dastardliness) but runs away. That day a monk who had taken the magic beans gives them to Jack in payment for a horse. Don’t lose them – and don’t let them get wet! Of course, he does lose one, not his fault, and it rains and Jack finds that a monstrously gigantic beanstalk sprouts, taking his house and the princess way up to the land of the giants. So far, even better.
As might be guessed, the king (Ian Mc Shane) is unhappy. He sends his captains, Ewan Mc Gregor and Eddie Marsan, to climb the stalk and recover the Princess. Jack’s help is acknowledged and he is commissioned to go as well. It is a love story too. And Duke Roderick volunteers.
There is quite some excitement as they climb the tree – except for Ewan Mc Gregor who plays his part, with attitudes and lines like those of Dirk Bogarde or John Gregson in those stiff upper-lip war stories of the 1950s, and does it entertainingly. He is prepared for every opportunity.
The giants are an ugly lot and led by Bill Nighy. They like eating humans (and there is a scene where Ewan Mc Gregor as well as two pigs are rolled in pastry for the oven) and are generally very repulsive to look at and in the way they behave. At this stage, we realise that, though it is a fairytale, the giants and their violence as well as the many deaths, especially from the swishing and swirling stalk as it is cut down, would be too much for many of the under 12s.
For the rest of us, there is more excitement, Roderick getting the crown and commanding the giants, his fight on the cliff’s edge, getting down the stalk and the king, fearing for his kingdom, getting it cut down. But, there is more. The giants find the remaining beans and grow more stalks, down to earth. A right royal pursuit ensues, a huge siege of the castle, even with burning moats, while Isabelle and Jack try to warn neighbouring towns.
You may guess how it ends. But, we can all be glad it is happy ever after.
Jessica Chastain, Nikolas Coster- Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nellise, Dan Kash.
Directed by Andres Muschietti.
Apart from wanting to see a ghost story, another good reason is to watch Mama because it stars Jessica Chastain, so prolific in performances in recent years (Tree of Life, The Help, Lawless and her Oscar-nominated role in Zero Dark Down). Actually, she is quite unrecognizable, with short, straight black hair, black lacquered fingernails and an abrupt manner as a singer. A reminder of her versatility.
But, the ghost and the haunting are the important things. During a financial crisis, a man kills his partners and his wife and abducts his children, intending to kill them. However, he kills himself, leaving the girls who are lost in the woods for years. When they are eventually found, they are wild children, dirty, hungry, the younger unable to speak. They are entrusted to the dead man’s brother and his partner (Chastain).
It quickly emerges that the girls were protected by a mysterious presence whom they call Mama. Mama begins to manifest herself, especially with growing weblike branches on walls and roofs, sinisterly black. We glimpse a presence and hear weird sounds/words.
While the intervention of Mama increases and becomes deadly, especially for the psychiatrist who has worked out who she is and what happened to her and her child in the past (in flashbacks for us). For an educated therapist, the doctor does go into dark and frightening places when common sense would advise not.
Nikolas Coster- Walder is the sympathetic uncle (who falls foul of Mama). When he is hospitalized, Anabel has to care for the children and begins to bond with the elder. When she discovers the story from the past, she returns to the place of death where there is more dramatic intensity as Anabel confronts the ghost.
While the film is in colour, it is muted colour, dark colour at times for this kind of eerie story.
US, 2012, 122 minutes, Colour.
Zac Efron, Matthew Mc Connaughey, Nicole Kidman, John Cusack, Macy Gray, Scott Glenn, David Oyelowo, Nealla.
Directed by Lee Daniels.
This is a world that most of us do not enter too often. And, at the end (as well as during), we might be wondering what we are doing here.
On the immediate surface, it looks like one of those journalistic films where reporters come to a town to investigate how the law was applied in a particular case. That certainly happens. However, what we are treated to is a motley group of people with problems (real Problems) who interact strangely with one another and who give us a picture of some of the more bizarre aspects of human nature.
It is the American South in the latter 1960s. For some, that might explain it at once. This is a South where many of the white inhabitants are still as racist as in slavery days (probably not acknowledging that these days should have gone long since) – and that includes one or other of the main characters. Perhaps it’s the heat or the steamy atmosphere, but sexual behaviour, of all kinds, seem to seep through all the time. With the racism and the sensuality, the investigative journalism takes second place.
But, there is something fascinating about this kind of story, this kind of treatment, this kind of expedition into somewhat forbidden territory. The Paperboy definitely keeps one attentive unless one is immediately repelled and that is that.
The film is narrated by the family maid, Anita (Macy Gray), so already the screenplay offers a perspective from the African American perspective, from a woman who has served the family, been accepted, been humiliated. Director and co-writer, Lee Daniels (Precious) is also African- American.
The focus is on Jack (Zac Efron), younger brother of journalist Ward (Matthew Mc Connaughey). He has been a scholarship swimmer but has dropped out and just seems to be lazing around the house. He leaps at the opportunity to drive his brother around during his investigations. His brother is accompanied by a black journalist (David Oyelowo), who poses as a Londoner to try to maintain some status.
But the straightforwardness of the venture veers off course with the arrival of Charlotte, an easy-going kind of woman who corresponds with prisoners and believes that the accused murderer of a local sheriff, whom the journalists want to have a fair trial, is the man of her dreams – just on the evidence of his letters.
Things go awry.
Charlotte meets her would-be fiancé, Hilary (John Cusack) who has more than a lecherous eye. Jack becomes infatuated with Charlotte, no matter what. Ward has some dark secrets which lead to him being beaten up. And, in keeping with the pessimistic tone of the film, there are no real happy endings.
One of the compelling curiosities of the film is to see stars playing against familiar type. Nicole Kidman stands out as the sluttish Charlotte. John Cusack, usually a goodie, is not so convincing as the loathsome Hilary. Matthew Mc Connaughey plays against his laid-back romantic image. Zac Efron proves that he does not have to stay in High School Musical territory.
This is an excursion into a deep South of contemporary (that is of the 1960s) decadence.
PERFORMANCE/ A LATE QUARTET
Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Mark Ivanir, Imogen Poots, Nina Lee.
Directed by Yaron Zilberman.
Recently, there have been several films for older audiences, quality films like Amour, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and, with themes of music, Quartet and A Song for Marion. Three have been British, one American. Performance is the American film, originally called A Late Quartet, but changed because of the release of the British film, Quartet.
The setting is New York City. Four members of the Fugue string quartet have being played together for 25 years. The leader of the quartet, Peter (Christopher Walken), is diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. (Some interesting scenes with interview and exercise with his doctor as well as explanations of how to deal and to cope with Parkinson’s.) Peter’s wife has died a year earlier.
He takes the news with great dignity, continuing his classes, a key scene being a lesson where he explains to his young students how he had met Pablo Cassals when young and, nervously, played for him, ashamed that it was his worst performance. He tells the group that he was praised by Cassals for his playing, and thought him hypocritical, just being nice to him. He goes on to say that he met Cassals later in his life and asked the master whether he remembered his performances for him. Cassals mentioned how he noticed variations of fingering and holding his bow from the usual playing and complemented him on his originality. That was what he had seen and praised. It is a moving story, nicely told.
In fact, Walken gives one of his most sympathetic performances, playing his role straight, a good and decent man, with a great love of music who has devoted himself for many decades to performance, especially in tribute to Beethoven’s opus 131, the Fugue - and movements are played throughout the film, explanations given as to the nature of the composition, and the reason for its being played straight through, very difficult for the players as well as their instruments.
The other members of the main cast are exemplary in their performances. We have come to expect a great deal from Philip Seymour Hoffman, showing great versatility in many different roles. Here he plays second violin and has come to a crisis, wishing to alternate with the first violin, played by Ukrainian-born actor, Mark Ivanir. Robert ( Hoffman), is married to the other violinist in the quartet, Juliet, and they have a daughter, Alexandra, who also plays the violin, takes lessons from Peter as well as from Mark.
Part of the drama in the film is Alexandra’s resentment towards her mother for being absent as she grew up, and having to travel around the world. She is closer to her father. Alexandra resents the perfectionism demanded by Daniel (Ivanir), in his lessons. However, he breaks through his normal reserve and begins an affair with the responsive Alexandra. This, of course, creates a crisis for her parents, with strong scenes of interaction with both.
But playing Robert gives Philip Seymour Hoffman a great opportunity to show a seemingly submissive of man, finally breaking out, wanting to play first violin and, in a moment of exasperation, betraying his wife who cannot understand what he has done and rejects him. In very dramatic and moving scenes he tries to explain what has motivated him, trying to assert himself.
Beethoven’s music is really the background for the film rather than a subject in itself though it is given quite some treatment. The thrust of the film is the drama between the different members of the quartet as well as a portrait of a man who accepts oncoming Parkinson’s disease, trying to play for as long as he can, then withdrawing in great dignity. Real-life cello player, Nina Lee plays herself, coming as the new cello player in the quartet.
While three of the characters are around the age of 50, Walken’s character is 70. Which means that there is a great appeal in the drama and the music for middle aged and older audiences.
RETURN TO NIM’S ISLAND
Bindi Irwin, John Waters, Matthew Lillard, Toby Wallace, Chris Haywood, Sebastian Gregory.
Directed by Brendan Maher.
Nim’s Island was a popular family film of 2009, with Jodie Foster as Nim’s mother, Gerard Butler as her father and ex as Nim. It showed the family arriving on a Pacific Island and settling there, the father writing adventure novels as well as being a scientist. Nim was free to range over the island, an opportunity for her and for the audience to be close to nature, familiar, unfamiliar, pleasant as well as rugged. This is something of the formula for this sequel.
This time the attraction for audiences is having Steve Irwin’s daughter, Bindi, playing Nim. She is still developing her acting skills but is a lively screen presence with her adventures, especially for girls her age and younger, who can identify with her. And she has a companion in her adventures, a young boy who has run away from his quarreling parents, who wants to share in her experiences on the island, Edmond (Toby Wallace).
This time her father is played by Matthew Lillard, in his younger days a raucous comedian but now playing a serious father-figure, with more emphasis on his concern for the environment than on writing adventure stories. He has a strong bond with his daughter. He also travels to Brisbane to plead his cause, prohibiting a company from building a resort on the island. He has the support of his father-in-wall, played by veteran Chris Haywood.
Speaking of veterans, John Waters plays the head of a family which spends its time poaching animals in the Pacific to sell to overseas entrepreneurs, even wanting to sell Nim’s pet sea lion to a Russian circus – which means rescue scenes. He plays his role very broadly bracket as he should, providing comedy for to balance the more serious intentions of Nim. He has two sons, one of whom is particularly vain, especially about his face, though he suffers quite a lot of bee stings and swellings. The other son tends to be overlooked and neglected. Of course, they get their comeuppance.
To preserve the island, Nim needs to find and record the presence of endangered species. This she does with the help of Edmond and his camera.
Which means then that all ends well. (It is encouraging to see that the minister for planning in Queensland has a strong environmental outlook.)
A film for the younger family, especially children 12 and under.
UNDERGROUND: THE JULIAN ASSANGE STORY
Rachel Griffiths, Anthony La Paglia, Alex Williams, Benedict Samuel,
Directed by Robert Connolly.
Julian Assange came into prominence with his distribution of secret documents and emails from the American government and military. Sought by the Swedish police for sexual harassment, wanted by the American government, somewhat disowned by the Australian government, with the British police ready to arrest him, he took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Opinion is divided about his Wikileaks, some seeing him as a champion of freedom of information and expose of cover-ups, others seeing him as a danger to national and International security.
This film is the story of his late teens and his capacity for hacking into secure sites, especially American military, during the 1990 Gulf War.
The film was written and directed by Robert Connolly (The Bank, Three Dollars, Balibo. His screenplay is favorable to Assange while trying to give some explanation about his motivations, coming from his personality but also from his background and his experience as a child and teenager. Newcomer Alex Williams portrays Assange. Rachel Griffiths is his mother, Christine. Anthony La Paglia portrays the investigating officer.
In his early years, Assange was taken to a secretive community, a cult. His mother, a forthright protester for causes which involved justice, was a strong influence on her son. She escaped from the community with her two sons and lived in hiding and on the run.
Julian was a computer whiz in the 1980s. As were many of his friends. For a bet, he hacked into the site of an American bank. In collaboration with his friends, he went into more serious sites, especially that of the American military with classified information about targets in the Gulf War, buildings bombed with civilian casualties. Assange took a righteous stand about these sites.
On a personal level, Assange became involved with a young woman who became pregnant. Ultimately, she found living on the run too difficult and left him, with his having to bring up the child as a single parent.
The police arrested him and his friends, having to catch them in the act of hacking for the charges of a crime to stick. Assange went to court, was found guilty but the judge treated him leniently because of his age. The rest became history.