SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS MAY 2010
BACKUP PLAN, The
CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH
CRYING WITH LAUGHTER
DISAPPEARANCE OF ALICE CREED, The
DONNE-MOI LE MAIN (GIVE ME YOUR HAND)
I KNOW YOU KNOW
IO SONO L'AMORE
IRON MAN 2
IT'S A WONDERFUL AFTERLIFE
(Spain/Malta, 2009, d. Alejandro Almanebar)
Agora is not a film which will draw large audiences. It is a film for those who are interested in and entertained by historical films and by those who would like to see a film which dramatises a period, not well known at all, in Christian history.
Some reviewers who have seen the film suggest that there is a need for some kind of historical background, especially about the Church in Egypt, in the city of Alexandria, at the end of the 4th century and the beginning of the 5th century. But, first some words about the overall impact of the film itself.
The film is impressive to look at, a combination of sets and computer generated locations. It was filmed in Malta (with a fair percentage of the population seeming to be present as extras, lots of crowd scenes). It runs for 128 minutes, which is quite demanding for a film about such an unfamiliar period. It was directed and co-written by Spanish director, Alejandro Almenabar (whose varied films include, Open my Eyes (remade as Vanilla Sky), The Others and the drama about assisted suicide, The Sea Within).
Some review comments
The film is also quite demanding in its content and dialogue. The central character is the renowned pagan philosopher, Hypatia. She is played with some authority by Rachel Weisz. Her philosopher father, Theon, is played by the French actor, Michel Lonsdale. Several sections of the film, some lengthy, are classes and discussions about the nature of the universe and speculation on the Ptolemaic theories of the relationship of the earth to the sun and the planets and how the stars move - or does the sun, or does the earth? Audiences who are not strong on astronomy or geometry may find these sequences too difficult, even baffling. But, it is quite a daring thing to present a feature film which raises these issues and asks its audience to think about them.
However, it is the religious background of the film which needs some explaining. By and large, the screenplay is accurate enough, especially about Hypatia, Orestes the governor of Alexandria and Sinesius, bishop of Cyrene, a pupil of Hypatia, who demands an assent of faith from her at the end of the film but who actually wrote in defence of her theories and died before her murder. There are problems with the presentation of Cyril of Alexandria, bishop of the city, later declared a saint and an important doctor of the church with his contributions to the theology of the humanity and divinity of Jesus.
The film might have been more satisfying for those who know something of the period had it alerted the audience to the fact that relations between pagans, Christians and Jews were not quite as straightforward as they are presented here. While it is accurate enough in general, there is much more to the feuds, hostilities, persecutions and massacres.
The 4th century was one of the most difficult in the Church's history and the source of much of the difficulty was, in fact, Alexandria.
From the 2nd century AD, the centres of intellectual debate and theological argument were in the schools of Alexandria and Antioch. By 300 AD, there were great developments in sophisticated theological thought in Alexandria. Agora does not really reflect this reality of the Alexandrian Christians. We see the Christians reflecting on the Scriptures (the Beatitudes in particular), the bishop preaching to the faithful and, later, the reading of texts from Pauline letters which are restrictive on the activities of women in the Church. But – and this may have been the case - most of the Christians are not well educated and easily swayed by populist demagogues, one of whom challenges the pagans to walk through fire unharmed as he does. He is seen as a miracle worker – the dared pagan goes up in flames. However, this is balanced by the same man showing a convert slave the ordinary miraculous in supplying bread for distribution to the poor. Reasonable enough and a fairly sympathetic view of Christians.
But, what had been most important in Alexandria at the beginning of the century was the teaching of the local priest, Arius, whose understanding of the relationship between the Father and the Son emphasised the humanity of Jesus as somehow making him inferior to the divine Father. His opponent was the bishop of Alexandria, St Athanasius, who found himself exiled from his city more than once. The historical complication was that this was the time when the emperor Constantine declared that Christianity not be a banned religion, 312 AD. Clashes, both ideological and physical, between pagans and Christians, spread throughout the empire as did the response of governors to the new situation, some for, some against.
While the Church resolved the Christ issue at the first of the ecumenical (worldwide) councils in Nicaea, a suburb of Constantininople, in 325, and enshrined it in a creed formulation that is still recited on Sundays at Masses around the world, the followers of Arius, maintained their stances and influenced a number of political rulers who used their adherence to Arianism to combat bishops. This would have been the case at the time of Hypatia. This could have been incorporated into some of the discussions in the film which would have heightened the reality of the persecution of the Christians by the pagans which resulted in fanatical and violent response, massacres in revenge for the killing of Christians and vandalism in destruction of the world's greatest library.
Hypatia, declaring herself a seeker after truth and an investigator of the universe, escaped the attacks and survived.
Further councils in 431 (Ephesus) and 451 (Chalcedon in Constantinople) led to further work on the theology of the humanity and divinity of Christ.
The second half of the film takes place in 415, the year of Hypatia's death. The bishop of Alexandria is Cyril. Checking Google references for him shows that he was as irascible as portrayed in the film. He fomented clashes with Orestes who had become a Christian as had many of the pagans and rulers. Another of his targets was the Jewish community. There is a similar difficulty in the portrayal of the Jews as stone throwing zealots and then victims, though not as viciously fanatic as some of the Christian zealots, especially a group of monks who patrol the city supervising morality.
There are records of Jews being in Alexandria since the early 6th century BC, the prophet Jeremiah and others fleeing there after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 587. Much intellectual reflection on the Jewish scriptures and the translation of books from Hebrew to Greek were done in Alexandria. The book of Wisdom, accepted in the Catholic biblical canon comes from this city in the 1st century BC. It is said that John's Gospel was influenced by the Alexandrian philosopher, Philo. Which means that at the time of the Jewish- Christian clashes in the film, Jews had been a significant part of Alexandria and its intellectual life for about a thousand years.
An Egyptian historian, Damascius, claimed that Cyril was responsible for the death of Hypatia and her very cruel martyrdom. Agora's screenplay follows this. Historians say there is no other evidence that this is exact – some 19th century authors took it up again. However, historians do say that Cyril's bitter approach fomented the pervading atmosphere of hostility which led to Hypatia's death.
So, there is much in Agora for audiences interested in films which dramatise unfamiliar periods of history. And, it may be more accurate than many others. The above background might have been incorporated into the screenplay to make it more solid and nuanced.
Hypatia the martyr
While initially the pagans are shown as clinging to their gods and to their own civil status and initiating persecution of the Christians, the Christian response (which was regrettably repeated down the ages, think St Bartholomew's Day massacre of 1572 against the Huguenots) is rabble-roused fanaticism. With the Jewish-Christian? clashes, there is a huge heritage of history and persecution which puts the sad experience of the 20th century in the audience's mind.
At the end, Hypatia is presented as a martyr and quite movingly declaring her own integrity (rather than faith) and bravely and heroically facing her death. This is strongly reminiscent of, even parallel to, the way that the Christian martyrs were portrayed in the storytelling of the early church.
(Actually, there was much more vitality and sophistication in the Christians churches of this period. St Ambrose was bishop of Milan at this time and St Augustine repented of his past in 397 and became the leading theologian of the western church. When Hypatia died, he was bishop of Hippo further west from Alexandria in north Africa, not all that far from the film' real character, Sinesius, bishop of Cyrene. By the middle of the 5th century Attila the Hun was at the gates of Rome, barbarians at the borders and the western empire was on the verge of collapse.)
Amenabar himself says that the film is not against Christianity but 'a film against fundamentalism, against those who defend their ideas with weapons. It is not against Christians and most certainly not against the Christians of today'.
THE BACKUP PLAN
(US, 2010, d. Alan Poul)
This may be one of the screenplays that Jennifer Aniston turned down. And she would have been more effective in it than Jennifer Lopez – though Jennifer Lopez was pregnant with and gave birth to twins in real life.
The first premiss of films like this remind us of what a topsy turvy world we live in, especially in the personal morality areas. Zoe (Lopez) desperately wants to have children, the clock is ticking, she doesn't think any of her men friends would make good fathers, so in a consumerist culture, she goes out and buys some sperm and has herself inseminated. She also joins a support group for single mothers. (The advertising makes the point about falling in love, getting married, having a baby but not in that order.)
Having made this decision and relying on support group rather than father or father-figure, she goes and falls in love with a handsome stranger (Alex O'Loughlin) who got in one side of the cab she hailed as she got in the other. Fate brings them together again and the film turns into a romantic comedy, punctuated by a lot of detail of pregnancy, physical health and and bodily functions. After seeming to fall out with her group, after being wary about trusting Stan, after being urged on by her nana (an energetic senior about to be married to a 93 year old in the home – played by Linda Lavin and Tom Bosley), after getting a lot of pep talks, Zoe turns the film into a pro baby, pro love, pro marriage comedy.
(UK, 2010, d. Duncan Ward)
A film about the filthy rich, or the filthy and rich. These are not people that most people would like to mix with (though many are pleased to read about them in gossip columns). This is a film about the contemporary art world in London, written by an artist and novelist who also lived in New York, held exhibitions and knows this cutthroat (and knife in the back) world, Danny Moynihan.
The title refers to a painting by Mondrian.
There is a certain curiosity element for audiences to see how this other small percentage live. The screenplay aims for comedy and satire but the antics of artists, dealers and collectors are not particularly funny, especially when they spend a lot of their time and energy, emotional, professional and business double-dealings. There are some humorous moments but more moments that are likely to provoke distaste.
The main advantage the film has is its unusual cast, quite a number of movie high flyers. Most of them give performances on the edge – and sometimes over the top. Danny Huston is a screen presence who can command attention. He does here as an avaricious, principle-less, shrewd art dealer. Skellan Skarsgaard is also effective as a smug and wealthy art connoisseur and collector, with Gillian Anderson as his wife. The owners of the Mondrian, in need of income and eager to sell, are played by Christopher Lee and Joanna Lumley, with Simon Mc Burney as their somewhat sinister butler and adviser. Americans Heather Graham and Amanda Seyfried turn up in London as do Alan Cumming and Jaime Winstone (sounding very much like her father, Ray) as a rather warped and ambitious video installation 'artist'.
Had these roles been taken by less known or unknown actors, the film might have made much less impact.
(UK, 2009, d. Jan Dunn)
The Calling is a small-budget British film that will probably not be distributed or seen widely. However, with its Catholic themes and the treatment, it comes within the range of a SIGNIS Statement.
The film is about a community of Benedictine Nuns in Kent, England, and a young woman who feels she has a calling to the contemplative religious life. What promises to be an interesting portrait of an enclosed community is not. (A helpful comparison is Michael Whyte's 2009 documentary on the Carmelite Sisters of Notting Hill, London, No Greater Love.) Diocesan Offices may be getting calls from those who want to complain about The Calling or from those who are asking for some explanations. Those who complain certainly have grounds for this. For audiences willing to give the film a go, they will probably be quite irritated and words like 'absurd', 'preposterous' and, at times, 'idiotic' may spring to mind.
The actual Benedictine Abbey of Minster in Kent provided help for the film and some groundwork for the plot. However, a glance at the Abbey's website shows how different the reality is from the melodramatics of the screenplay. Not that the screenplay is necessarily written in bad faith, though there are some shots at Vatican documents and official Catholic teaching on sexual issues (though Sister Ignatious (I'm afraid that's the way it is spelt for the film but this statement will take the liberty of writing the name correctly) makes the distinction necessary in speaking about abortion. She is anti-abortion but pro-choice at a crucial dramatic stage of the film; for her pro choice is, in essence, is a legal consideration rather than a moral one, a legal consideration for something which one does not approve, like St Augustine's supporting the legalisation of prostitution for the protection of the women and to try to preclude criminal elements exploiting the women, while he did not approve of it morally.) This is, in fact, a current issue for nuns in contemporary US health care discussions which may have influenced Jan Dunn in including it and discussion about contraception and the use of condoms in Africa.
One of the difficulties with the screenplay is the frequent use of the word, 'calling'. Catholics do not normally use that word. They use 'vocation' – and, in fact, this is the word used on the Minster Abbey website. This means that from the word go, or from the first use of the word 'calling', the film does not sound Catholic. Some of the ecclesiastical buildings look Anglican and the soundtrack chant is sung by the Canterbury Cathedral choir.
While important issues are interestingly dramatised, usually, they are outside the abbey of St Bertha (St Bertha!!!): the hostility of the mother of the young woman (Joanna/ Emily Beechum), her best friend's carping, ridiculing and offering advice whereas she is more concerned about herself than wanting Joanna to be happy and have her own peace of mind. The local parish priest is common-sensed and kindly. Psychological concern is rightly raised.
However, inside the abbey!
I suppose there are priests like Fr Kieren, the chaplain, a rather younger, self-righteous imperiously critical man. Yes, there are. However, by the end, he has a list of sins that have been exaggerated for plotline (and not every effectively).
The nuns are really a strange lot. Since they are Benedictines, in real life, the local bishop might have intervened more quickly (though he is not without skeletons in his cupboard, piling on screenplay exploitation and exaggeration). The Abbey would belong to the worldwide Benedictine Union and there would have been visitation and intervention long since. These sisters have a correct autonomy but locally are a law unto themselves.
Susannah York plays the prioress with huge emotional, psychological and vocational problems, ruling her small roost like someone who would have been rejected from The Nun's Story and who makes Meryl Streep's Sister Aloysius in Doubt, seem severe but normal. Her fate at the end is tragic but incredible. Rita Tushingham and Pauline McLynn? (who knows a thing or two about religious houses since she played Fr Ted's housekeeper on television) are two of the cattiest nuns you would wish not to meet, trying to drive Joanna out of the community. There is a sister who has been the victim of trauma and does not speak (but plays the organ beautifully) and there is a novice who has a dubious past and a dubious present. All in all, a dysfunctional lot who remind us of the classic film of a dysfunctional community of nuns, Michael Powell's 1947 Black Narcissus, the story of an Anglican community in India after the war.
Which leaves Brenda Blethyn's Sister Ignatious (Ignatius). She is the contact with the outside and deals with Fr Kieren, interviews Joanna and befriends her and is the novice mistress. Though at one stage, she goes quite out of character and upbraids Joanna for her vegetarian choices and calls on obedience for her to eat the meat before her. That seems quite out of keeping with Sister Ignatius who is reported to have joined pro-choice protests, can make a sly remark about the Vatican, and has her own past secrets.
By this stage, Catholic audiences may be wringing their hands or planning a letter to the editor. Audiences who are hostile to the Church will feel that all their suspicions have been justified (and some!).
As with so many films which deal with the Catholic church in some detail, there has not been nearly enough seeking of technical advice to make it plausible if not accurate – or, if sought, not understood or not heeded. The screenplay's idea of a postulancy, a novitiate and the nature of vows is not well-informed and details are not correct, making it all seem more unnuanced and severe than it really is. (The nuns of Minster do have details of their postulancy and novitiate on the website.) For those who have some experience of religious life, some of the hymns and canticles chanted in the chapel are not apt, though some scenes like that of communion or someone reading Catholic Life with Cardinal Murphy O'Connor on the cover are pleasingly real.
It's a small film which does not claim to be The Nun's Story – although it may have borrowed its ending from that film. It might have been much more interesting had it been more accurate and the cumulative melodrama both inside the convent and outside (there are a number of surprising deaths) not overdone.
(UK, 2010, d. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant)
Ricky Gervais and his comic style are an acquired taste – and many audiences of the television programs, The Office (UK version) and Extras, have acquired it. He usually does obnxious deadpan (the Museum director in the Night at the Museum films) but did dentist-victim-ghost nicely in Ghost Town. He tried more variety in The Invention of Lying. While he does have a role in Cemetery Junction, he and writing partner, Stephen Merchant, have something more ambitious in mind here. It is a visit to the working class Britain of the 1970s, the narrow outlooks of populations stuck in towns where their families have always been, which expresses itself in bigoted and racist comments as well as disbelief that anybody in the family would want to get out of there.
It is a film of episodes more than a developing narrative, although the central young characters do move emotionally and decisively in their lives.
Freddy (Christian Cooke) has an interview for a job in an insurance company, kow-towing to the manager and his on-the-rise salesman. While he gets the job, he has to put up with the taunts of his friends, their antics and family criticism (Gervais plays his factory-working dad). Bruce (Tom Hughes) works at the factory and goes home to his alcoholic father whose wife left them long since. He despises his father, suppresses his rage until he lashes out violently. Snork is the local dork with self-designed inane tatoos on back and front and who puts his foot in it as soon as he opens his mouth. Local dead-endism looms for Bruce and Snork.
When the film opens, and we either laugh at the lads or are irritated by them, it may seem that the film is not going to go too far either. But, it grows on you and the range of characters are well observed and written.
This is definitely the case with the adults. Ralph Fiennes (after chewing the scenery and more as Hades in Clash of the Titans and then doing the most impassive, stiff upper lip military office in Nanny McPhee? and the Big Bang) is excellent as the self-absorbed, self-made chauvinist insurance manager who has imposed on his wife, Emily Watson also excellent, and dominated and ignored her into submission. Matthew Goode is persuasively and unscrupulously go-getting, engaged to the boss's vivacious daughter, Julie, who could be in danger of eventually becoming a replica of her mother. However, when she meets up with Freddy, her friend from school days, she is challenged, as are Bruce and Snork, to leave the drab life and future in Cemetery Junction.
The film is not presented as exact realism. The characters are just that bit caricatured, the situations heightened. However, with the sharp dialogue (particularly from a shrewish, obliviously bigoted Anne Reid as Freddy's grandmother) and some emotional interactions, especially from the policeman who defends Bruce's father and tries to knock some sense into Bruce, there is a sufficient sense of realism below the surface.
Gervais fans should not be expecting a funny comedy but, rather, a wry serious comedy with some funny moments.
(UK, 2010, d. Neil Marshall)
The early 2nd century AD clash between the Roman imperial legions and the Picts on the British frontier of the empire was harsh and violent. Centurion is not afraid to show either the harshness or the violence (often quite graphically, especially a lot of throat-slitting). There is an extraordinary harshness in the filming of the craggy mountain landscapes, a terrain for survival for a group of Roman soldiers.
Writer-director Neil Marshall offers a credit of thanks to director Walter Hill and Greek historian, Zenophon (for Xenophon). Hill is a director of the tough and visceral school and Marshall quotes his film Southern Comfort. Xenophon chronicled the escape of a group of Greek soldiers fighting their way back to base and safety. In fact, Marshall's three previous films were all about small groups struggling for survival, menaced by hostile and violent enemies (Dog Soldiers where a group of soldiers confront werewolves, The Descent where a group of women cave explorers battle dead monsters, Doomsday a group in an apocalyptic future).
The narrator here is a soldier, Quintus Dias, son of a freed gladiator slave, captured by the Picts and tortured. In the meantime, the Roman commander sends the 9th legion (the subject of a forthcoming film from Kevin MacDonald?, The Eagle of the Ninth) to vanquish the Picts. The opposite happens and most of the men of the Ninth are massacred. A small group, including Quintus, who had been rescued by the legion, leads the small group on a flight north through the wintry Scottish landscapes, pursued by a crack group led by Etain, a tracker, whose family had suffered under the Romans and she had been raped and her tongue cut out. There are some moments of respite when a woman, exiled as a witch, does assist the fugitives.
The flight and chase are gruelling (even for the audience). The cast is strong: Michael Fassbended is Quintus, David Morrissey and Liam Cunningham are two soldier stalwarts. Ulrich Thomsen is the Pict leader. Dominic West the Roman General and Olga Kuryenko, fierce as Etain.
At times the voiceover from Quintus is literate and sonorously delivered followed by 21st century idiom and swearing.
While it re-creates the grim conditions for the legions and the clashes between empire and 'barbarians', the film is geared towards an audience (probably male) who prefer their films with action and toughness.
(Ireland, 2009, d. Lisa Barros D' Sa and Glenn Leyburn)
Another film about disaffected young people, resenting their parents and acting out in the usual rebellious ways, sex, drugs, drinking, brawling, graffiti... but this time in Northern Ireland. So, if that sounds interesting, here it is. But, if it doesn't, then then give it a miss. They are a wearying group of teenagers, self-indulgent until they strike disaster and their regrets are too late.
One of the advertising catch-lines is that we will see the wild side of Rupert Grint, Harry Potter series Ron Weasley. Actually, he is far more wild and agreeably interest as Ron. He is rather sombre here, a bit stolid and unbelievable as a tearaway in his attempts to behave as the script asks him to.
CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH
(China, 2009, d. Lu Chuan)
Winner of the SIGNIS award at the San Sebastian Festival, 2009.
This fine film provided two of the most gruelling hours I have spent watching films.
In recent years, there have been a number of films dramatising the Japanese Imperial Army's attack on Nanking in 1937, the subsequent siege and massacres (and the short-lived safety zone), sometimes referred to (and the film reminds us of the literal reality of this) as 'the rape of Nanking'. Officials and leaders left the city which served as the capital of China. Soldiers of the surrendering army were slaughtered. Women were taken and raped, supplementing the work of the 'comfort women' imported from Japan for the soldiers. The callous attitudes of the occupying forces were both cavalier and brutal.
Personally, I was glad to have already seen the German-Chinese? co-production, John Rabe, which offered a stronger narrative background to the events as well as dramatically delineating key characters. The film featured Ulrich Turkur in a fine performance as John Rabe, the longtime German representative of the Siemens company in Nanking. As a loyal German, he was a member of the Nazi party – which linked him with the Japanese invaders. However, he was a man of compassion and, after international discussions in the city, he undertook the establishing of a safety zone which was, for a time, honoured. The film's cast included Daniel Bruehl, Steve Buscemi and Anne Consigny.
The same characters are seen, sometimes rather sketchily, in City of Life and Death, but the overall communication of the film is less by narrative than by graphic depictions of events (at times disturbingly graphic) with a cumulative effect rather than a story which proceeds by cause and effect. It is like a dramatic installation which would enable a viewer to spend as long as they wished contemplating one story before moving on to the next.
The film was shot in black and white, at times with newsreel immediacy, taking the camera and the audience into the middle of the action.
The Chinese are portrayed as the victims of terrible imperial hubris and unlimited cruelty. The Japanese are presented as militarily and culturally barbaric, the ordinary soldiers moving from sadistic treatment of prisoners, abusive treatment of women, and then being just ordinary men doing ordinary things. It is alarming how human beings can move so easily from despicable behaviour to 'normal' behaviour and so quickly and unreflectively.
The film-makers have included, however, along with recognisable characters like John Rabe, the Chinese assistant to Rabe, Mr Tong, and his family, Miss Jiang, translator and liaison, the international characters, a focus on a Japanese soldier, Kadokawa, who participates in the Japanese domination but who begins to question commands, is repelled by some of the behaviour and comes to a final tragic realisation of what has happened to the Chinese, to the Japanese invaders and to himself. While the frustration of John Rabe, the sad story of Mr Tong and his wife and child, the decisions that the young women have to make to save the bigger group are emotionally harrowing, this more sympathetic portrayal of Kadokawa is presented with a generosity of spirit by the Chinese towards the Japanese.
This is a compelling film that highlights one of the messages of the aftermath of war, 'lest we forget'.
CRYING WITH LAUGHTER
(UK, 2009, d. Justin Molotnikov)
Not much laughter here – but, surprisingly after the first somewhat repellent 15 minutes of the film, quite a lot for tears and reflection.
This a film about a stand-up comic, Joe Frisk (played effectively, except in his comedy routines, by Stephen Mc Cole). Last year, Adam Sandler in Funny People showed the inner unhappiness of the comic and a preoccupation with illness and death. We don't quite know, at first, what is the inner sadness of Joe Frisk whose comedy is of the crass and crude and unfunny variety (sorry, very little variety) as is his own personal behaviour, drinking, snorting cocaine, irresponsible towards ex-partner and their daughter, welshing on debts, altogether someone that you would hesitate spending 90 minutes with.
Things take quite a turn for the odd when Joe encounters Frank, someone from school that he does not immediately recognise, who invites him to a reunion. Joe tries to avoid Frank but becomes ever more entangled when Frank identifies Joe in a line-up and he is sent to rehab. Frank, who has a considerable hurt agenda of his own, gets him out and tries to involve him a plan to abduct their headmaster, now suffering from dementia, from a nursing home.
By this time the film is more interesting than anticipated. But, it is the reason for all this effort on Frank's part that is the key, something which is very much in the headlines these years, sexual abuse of minors. Joe has repressed memories, especially after the school burnt and he was sent to a Borstal where he says that he had to try to be the funniest to survive. However, Frank has the revelations and our attention is fixed on the headmaster, bewildered at first but then reverting to his old self and unselfconsciously re-enacting the beginnings if his abusive behaviour and being unpitiable in asking them to keep his behaviour secret and from the police. By this stage, the film is very serious indeed.
For those who have persevered beyond the offputting opening and, despite the Bullpit Club's audience chortling at very unfunny performances, there is a lot to think about, especially in how Joe handles his audition for an American agent, recounting his experiences and what he has decided to do with his life from now on.
(US, 2010, d. Shawn Levy)
One of the great advantages of seeing film previews is that we often don't know a lot of details about a film or its plotline. That was the case here – and very enjoyable to discover what the date night was really like. But, advertising and trailers have let many audiences know something of what they are going to see, so there are some plot details mentioned here – but not to spoil enjoyment, rather to boost it.
Part of the attraction is the pairing of two fine comedians, Steve Carrell and Tina Fey, as Phil and Claire, a husband and wife with two bumptious children. They live in suburban New Jersey, rather conventional but comfortable, with good jobs and good friends and neighbours. There is the usual tension with their being so busy and the kids being energy-draining. They are often too tired for love and intimacy. And Claire is a controller and doesn't give Phil enough credit for initiatives.
So, it looks like a romantic comedy for 40 year old suburban couples with humour and some serious points.
Then Phil and Claire go on a date night in Manhattan, to a new seafood restaurant, Claw, and claim a free table that isn't theirs. Then the night goes beyond their wildest fantasies as they a confronted by two standover men with guns.
Watching Phil and Claire cope with a continuingly deranged night, which involves them eluding the pursuers, contacting police, enlisting the aid of Claire's former client, a shirtless Mark Wahlberg (who irks Phil), using wits and phony voices to discover the phone number and the address of the actual couple (amusing turns by James Franco and Mila Kunis), a Manhattan car chase with a taxi locked on to their car, a visit to a sleazy club and attempt to mingle as pole dancers where they try to make contact with the DA (William Fichtner) and fall foul of a gangster (Ray Liotta).
So, a different kind of romantic comedy! Which shows that date nights have the potential to enhance marriages!!
(US, 2010, d. Lasse Hallstrom)
The title sets the tone, the Dear John letters and their emotions. The opening of the film seems to confirm this as the wounded John (Channing Tatum) speaks a voiceover of a letter about what came into his mind before he lost consciousness. We make assumptions about the letter which are not correct. In fact, there are some pleasing dramatic twists in the plot reminding us that we always think this kind of romantic movie is quite predictable. In many ways, of course, it is. But this one is not quite as predictable as we might think.
It is based on a novel by the very popular best-selling author, Nicholas Sparks. Film versions of his novels include Message in a Bottle, A Walk to Remember, The Notebook and Nights in Rodanthe. If you know those films and his books, you know that you are expecting to see a love story, some sadness and, definitely, some tears.
Dear John fulfils the expectations exactly – unless you are one of those who so loves the novel that no version can do it justice. What helps Dear John to be so entertaining and sad for its niche audience is the direction from Lasse Hallstrom who has shown over the years that he can do classily-crafted emotional films (What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Cider House Rules, Chocolat, Hachi: a Dog's Tale).
Channing Tatum's performances are usually of the solid (stolid-looking) young American who is a bit inarticulate though ready to fight. What we see here is his transformation from that type to a man more in touch with his inner self and his feelings. This happens on two levels. He falls for a young woman after diving into the water to retrieve her bag which she had dropped. They click, especially on the level of friendship which deepens into love. She is Savannah and is played by Amanda Seyfried. However, John is a Green Beret and has to go back to service. They begin a series of letters.
The path of true love certainly does not go in the expected direction here which gives more edge to the story.
But, it is on the other level that Dear John is so moving. It is John's relationship with his father. Dad is played by that excellent character actor, Richard Jenkins (Oscar-nominated for The Visitor). He does not communicate with his son very well and is reserved with everyone. Savannah, who lives next door to a friend (Henry Thomas) who cares for his autistic son, realises that the father, with his exact cooking routines and with his meticulous care of his extensive coin collection is also autistic. While John cannot accept this, it makes a lot of sense to the audience and is a reminder that many adults who are dismissed as odd or impossible may actually be autistic. (The six year old son is played by an actual autistic boy.)
There are some moving letters eventually from John to his father.
Obviously, this kind of film is made for a special audience, those who like to be moved by sentiment and emotional stories. Dear John fulfils those conditions, which means that anti-sentiment audiences should keep far away.
THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ALICE CREED
(UK, 2010, J. Blakeson)
The film opens in a very businesslike manner as two men set up a flat for an abduction. They go to the shops, are careful and thorough in their purchases and then proceed, very efficiently, to prepare the rooms as soundproof and secure. They do the same with a van. With the title, we are aware of what will probably happen.
When they do abduct the struggling Alice Creed, they bind her and put her in the back of the van and then tie her to a bed in the flat. So far, so effective.
It is the money they are after, not any injury to Alice, so they are also careful in keeping her hydrated, careful with the toilet although this is completely humiliating for Alice.
Then come some plot twists. You know that there will be twists – otherwise what is the point of a mere abduction and ransom story? It is trying to anticipate what might happen that keeps the audience interested and guessing – and prevents a reviewer from going much further in giving any indication of developments.
While the action is mostly confined to the three rooms and the focus is only on the two men and Alice, the photography and camera movement ensure that it is not a claustrophobic experience (except for Alice). Suffice to say that each of the three characters get a chance for acting and character development.
Gemma Arteton is Alice. The versatile Eddie Marsan (who seems capable of any kind of role, serious or comic) is Victor, the brains behind the enterprise. Martin Compston is Danny whom Victor took a shine (and more than a shine) to in prison.
Not the most cheerful of stories, of course, but well scripted and developed, and the characters behaviour credible in the situations.
(Greece, 2009, d. Yorgos Lanthimos)
A festival winner (Cannes, Un Certain Regard, 2009) and a challenge to its audiences. Since the film was made, news stories have emerged about parents imprisoning children in their homes and subjecting them to physical and/or sexual abuse. So, this strange story of a wealthy Greek family may not seem as surprising as, a few years ago, it might have been.
This is a comparatively quiet drama, working its power on its audience cumulatively rather than shock tactics. In fact, the home looks quite elegant and the three children, young adults, whose life is restricted to the house and grounds and swimming pool, are generally cheerful having no idea what is happening to them. A strange clue is given as the film opens, making us wonder what is happening. It seems that the parents re-define words so that the children will not know how much of the outside ticks. They have been trained to think cats are humans and that the planes flying overhead are only toys. They behave in childish ways, playing games, playing competitions for prizes and rewards. So, this is a kind of (forced) innocent Eden supervised by a possessive father playing god (who is shown going out to work, a successful industrialist) and a passive mother.
Things change because of sexual needs. The father brings a security guard (blindfolded) for the son whoh becomes friendly with the two sisters and the family.
Needless to say, the pressures mount – and, after building audience tension with a threatening situation, the film just stops, leaving the audience to come to terms with their revulsion at such parental behaviour and its consequences for the children, and what will now happen as the circumstances have changed so drastically.
DONNE-MOIS LE MAIN (GIVE ME YOUR HAND)
(France, 2009, d. Pascal- Alex Vincent)
A road movie, highways, back roads, forest tracks and some railways.
The film begins with an arresting animated sequence, a boy helping his father in a bakery, clashing with his father, and his twin brother coming to the shop and enticing him to leave. As we take up the live action, the two brothers are hitch-hiking to Spain for their mother's funeral. They take quite a long time to get there (and often it seems that way thought the running time of the film is only 80 minutes).
The brothers are played by identical twins, Alexandre and Victor Carril, who have appeared in some short films for the director. Fortunately, for identifying them, because they are strongly identical, one has a scar above his eye – he is the one in the bakery, Antoine. The other, Quentin, does drawings.
Apart from a lot of pretty scenery, which we get plenty of opportunity and time to contemplate, and wondering whom they will encounter next (and will there be sexual activity – there is), the main interest is in watching the twins and how they relate to each other. They both have what we might now call the Robert Pattinson Twilight look. They can be soulful and morose. They can be irascible (and there are quite a number of punch-ups, with each other, that is). They get lifts from friendly people, exploitative people, and stop to earn train ride money helping with a harvest.
A mood piece which, or may not, hold the interest.
(UK, 2010, d. Chris Morris)
Satire and parody. How far can you go?
Some cultures are good at satire and enjoy it. The British comedy tradition is in that vein. Americans are less prone as a whole to appreciate irony. Recent events have made satirists and cartoonists very wary about Islam. With Christianity it seems no holds barred.
Those may be some of the thoughts before seeing Four Lions if you have heard that it is a black comedy about suicide bombers and was made by Chris Morris who has had a strong, if chequered, career as a television satirist. Can you make a film on this topic these days – well, he has made it, so the question is should he have made it. Chaplin mocked Hitler and Mussolini in 1940 in The Great Dictator. Perhaps the lines were so easily drawn then, that it didn't matter if the Germans or Italians didn't like it. Now innocent victims of suicide bombers are in our midst and their relatives and friends grieve. Satire, mockery? The quickest answer is that if this does not sound like your sense of humour, then simply don't go. If you feel that one way of coping with the terrible consequences of fanatical beliefs is to show the ridiculous side of such behaviour and the less-than-heroism and even stupidity of those who believe that they are martyrs with instant entree into heaven, then here you are.
Four Lions is often cleverly written and, at times, makes for some laugh out loud comedy. Riz Ahmed (Road to Guantanomo) has decided that the best thing to do, given the terrible state of the world, is to commit an atrocity and blow bystanders up with himself. Two of his friends (and now disciples) are, to put it kindly, very slow-witted. This offers an occasion for mocking the taping of the video messages, for instance, let alone the inefficiency of the attempts by amateurs like these. The other member of the team is Barry, Anglo- Saxon, but a convert to terrorist Islam where he has made a place for himself that he could not do in real life. He is the critic and the contradictor.
They go to Pakistan for some training but are fairly hopeless and get sent home.
They are also essentially British and they fall back on different taken-for-granted little details of British life and customs, TV and music, food, ordinary jobs in the workplace, which shows the mixed motives that have not been sorted out.
Eventually, they set on a plan to sabotage the London Marathon. Most things that could go wrong do go wrong but in a deadly way – which is a means of questioning the religious and/or fanatical beliefs that would persuade men and women to offer themselves as suicide bombers. (For a very serious look at two bombers from Palestine going into Israel, Paradise Now is well worth seeing.)
(US, 2010, d. Roger Kumble)
Yes, that's what it says. The furry creatures on the warpath are those furry critters from the woods, raccoons, squirrels, skunks... even some turkeys (which offers some bad suggestions to antipathetic reviewers of the film) who resent the developers coming in to destroy their habitats. Fair enough. But is furry vengeance enough?
The initial credits have some cartoon drawings. Soon into the film, which we realise is a live action cartoon, it becomes clear that it might have been funnier and more effective as an entire cartoon given how well animation films work these days. The trouble is that humans acting like cartoon characters can seem too stupid (a word that appears in the dialogue early in the film to describe some human behaviour). Much easier to accept cartoons with human voices than humans aping cartoons. Not that Brendan Fraser who stars and is executive producer and really liked this film is unfamiliar with live action cartoon characters (think George of the Jungle Encino Man, Dudley Do Right or Looney Tunes). But, he is getting a bit old and a bit heavy to do this kind of thing convincingly.
Actually, the live animals (and CG and animatronic animals) communicate via images in cartoon bubbles and with sly and snide expressions. They come off better than most of the humans.
The story is the old one. Greedy real estate entrepreneurs (who pay lip-service only to environmental concerns) want to destroy the forest to build suburbia. Ken Jeong has shown he can do cartoonish characters (Role Models, The Hangover) and gets away with being an idiotic businessman with some silly schtick. Brendan Fraser wants to further his career and is a desperate yes man for the boss. He is the main target of furry vengeance schemes (and skunks seem particularly love to deliver all over him) but, of course, has to come to his senses after being pounded out of them for almost 90 minutes and be the animal's saviour.
Who is the target audience? Younger kids who might like the slapstick and physical humour. And any (very) undiscriminating adults. (Older audiences who haven't seen Brooke Shields for a while will become conscious of their own age as they see her at almost 45, rather tougher looking than she used to, but a good sport for being her as Brendan Fraser's long-suffering wife.)
THE GHOST (THE GHOSTWRITER)
(2010, UK/Germany, d. Roman Polanski)
Robert Harris is a best-selling writer whose conspiracy books include Fatherland and Archangel. He has collaborated here with Roman Polanski in adapting his novel, Ghost, for the screen and has said that in refining, cutting and selecting for the screenplay, the film has some better features than the book. Whether that is true or not, The Ghost is an absorbing contemporary thriller with fascinating political suggestions and implications.
First of all, it is not about Tony Blair. Well, not quite. Harris has said that he had the basic idea before Labour came to power in the UK in 1997. But, with comments about Tony Blair and war crimes in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, Harris had found a situation to build his novel on. In fact, the screenplay becomes quite explicit at times about the repercussions of the invasion of Iraq for the British and the Americans and the role of the CIA.
Harris has also expressed an admiration for the films of Alfred Hitchcock with their ordinary and central character sometimes caught up in a world of intrigue and international espionage. This film can be described as in the vein of Hitchcock suspense. Roman Polanski showed himself a director in this genre with his 1988 Frantic.
Opening with the seemingly accidental death of the ghost writer of the former British Prime Minister's memoirs, the film quickly introduces Ewan Mc Gregor as the writer being courted to revise and rewrite the memoirs. Ewan Mc Gregor has proven himself quite an engaging screen presence in both serious and comic films and is able to take the weight of the film, appearing in every sequence.
Needless to say, there are complications, twists and some sinister chases and a writer, not used to being in this kind of danger, having to show bits of action and heroism that surprise him.
Pierce Brosnan has proven that he has an acting life after James Bond (well, not a sining one after Mamma Mia) and is very good as the irascible and genial former prime minister. Kim Cattral has a more serious role than usual as his minder and Olivia Williams relishes her role as the wife, a hard woman, strong, with a touch of jealousy but a power behind the throne.
The film is also enhanced by a number of important and effective cameos: Tom Wilkinson as a professor, Timothy Hutton as the official attorney, James Belushi as the head of the publishing company, Robert Pugh as the former Foreign Secretary and a welcome appearance by 93 year old Eli Wallach.
As the ghost writer uncovers more and more information, more possibilities for conspiracy theories arise until a good dramatic ending which we may or may not have been anticipating but which makes some sense (sinister sense) of what has been going on.
(UK, 2009, d. Josh Appignanesi)
The title, The Infidel, has the ring of religious intolerance about it. And that is what the film is about. However, it is not preaching in the serious vein about intolerance, it is preaching seriously via comedy. This is a risky enterprise, especially if those in need of learning lessons of tolerance and mutual understanding lack a sense of humour (which anyone with the touch of the fanatic tends to lack). There is probably enough in this comedy, which has quite a light touch but deep feelings about Muslims and Jews, to upset the humourless people.
Omid Djalili has built up a reputation on stage and on television as a strong comedian. Here he portrays a second generation Pakistani minicab manager in London, Mahmud, Muslim but not taking it or practice too seriously. His son wants to marry his sweetheart but her mother has just become engaged to an Imam who has a reputation for stirring up hate. That might be enough for a comedy that wants to challenge extremism but there is more, much much more.
While cleaning out his deceased mother's room, Mahmud finds that he was adopted – and that he was Jewish, Solly Shimshillewitz.
So, on the one hand you have the funny scenes poking fun at Muslims like the visit of the Imam to inspect his prospective son-in-law and Mahmud trying his hardest to give a good and orthodox impression as well as a rally by the smug Imam with his henchmen planted to ask sympathy-eliciting questions with his surprising unmasking (though I don't know what Cat Stevens, who is mentioned earlier in the film, would make of the twist). There is also some comedy at Mahmud turning up at a pro-Palestinian rally and his doing some quick thinking to divert the crowd from thinking he was Jewish.
On the other hand you have Mahmud investigating his Jewish background so that he can meet his dying father and having antagonistic cab driver, Lennie (Richard Schiff familiar from The West Wing), coach him in manners and expressions Jewish. The attempts to do the Jewish shrug and say 'Oy' are very funny as is Lenny's taking Mahmud to a Bar Mitzvah celebration and stranding him on the dais and getting him to tell a Jewish story.
The difficulty with a film like this is that, while it is actually quite funny and audiences will enjoy it, it is really preaching to the converted. One would like to think, however, that it may make a convert or two to religious and cultural tolerance.
I KNOW YOU KNOW
(UK, 2009, d. Justin Kerrigan)
An interesting film but one which many people may find alienates them. It begins one way and ends in quite, quite another.
Part of the difficulty may be that the writer-director, Justin Kerrigan (Human Traffic), has dedicated this film to his father. And, it seems, the film is something of a heart-felt portrait of his father showing the rapport between a son and a very strange and disturbed father.
It starts breezily with Charlie (Robert Carlyle giving quite a striking performance) and his son Jamie (Arron) returning from a trip. School starts for Jamie, with some loneliness and bullying, and his father wants him to stay with his uncle and aunt. In the meantime, it seems that Charlie has a special and secret commission and suspects a new television satellite company as being behind the problems. It is 1989.
From then on, the film becomes quite complicated, Jamie puzzled and asking lots of questions, his father acting strangely and becoming more and more obsessed with his mission and the enemy.
After a while, we realise what is happening and share Jamie's concern and love for his father and the dangers he is getting into.
The setting is Wales. Much of the action takes place in ordinary circumstances. But, the agent story heightens the melodramatic aspects until a sadly ironic postscript voiced by the director himself with another dedication of the film to his deceased father.
IO SONO L'AMORE (I AM LOVE)
(Italy, 2009, d. Luca Guadagnino)
Italian film-making in the older classical style.
In the 1970s, Italian directors like Mauro Bolognini made films that were portraits of a time and, often, of a family immersed in that time. The films concentrated on the look and the feel of the period and situated their characters and their interactions and struggles in lavish tableaux, in melodramatic interchanges, sometimes quite operatic, with a score than emphasised this mood and this atmosphere. The same could be said of Io Sono L'Amore. However, the time and the setting are more of the present, the early 21st century.
The writer-director has had a long association with the star, Tilda Swinton, and they have been in pre-production for a many years. While the film is about a family, an industrial dynasty from Milan, it is very much about her character, Emma, a Russian immigrant who has borne her business tycoon husband three children and has become the lady of the mansion. The long opening of the film shows her preparations for a birthday dinner, the arrival of the guests and their chatting at pre-dinner drinks and then the meal with a speech by the patriarch of the family and his handing over the reins of the business to his son and grandson.
It should be said that the film dwells lovingly and in close-up on rooms and furnishings, art work and, especially, sumptuous meals and table settings.
And it goes on from there... Business issues like selling the company, father eager, son opposed. Emotional issues like the daughter studying in England and coming out. The widow of the patriarch still asserting her influence. But, most of all, the focus is on Emma, her relationship with her husband who is business preoccupied, her love for her son, Edo, who wants to start a restaurant with his friend, Antonio, and eventually an affair with Antonio which transforms her but leads also to some grief.
Many reviewers have found the film elegant and involving. This reviewer admires the elegance but, despite Tilda Swinton's nuanced performance, not so involving. Part of the difficulty (which, it should be said, was a great plus for many including Tilda Swinton, the director and the producers) was the use of selections of music by John Adams. At times the score counterpointed the action but, often, it seemed incongruous, especially in the long credits sequence, tracking through the snowy suburbs of Milan, to a disconcertingly jaunty accompaniment.
It is, however, a strong attempt to embrace Italian traditional film-making and use it for a contemporary story.
IRON MAN 2
(US, 2010, d. Jon Favreau)
Described as 'eagerly anticipated sequel' in the press notes (and that is correct), it is not necessarily as enjoyable as the original film was. That will depend on moods and tastes, of course, but the sequel, well made as was to be expected, is sometimes new but often enough a replay variation on the first film.
Robert Downey's Tony Stark is as entertaining as ever. The world knows he is Iron Man and he is revered as the saviour and enabler of peace. However, a number of people disagree – and that is where some of the good drama takes place. Most obviously, this is with the new villain, Ivan, played with relish and dissheviled glee by Mickey Rourke. His causing mayhem with his powers and his electric currents emanating from his body at the Monte Carlo Grand Prix starts the action sequences. And by the end, especially in the showdown with robots galore and Ivan being terrible again, there is enough clunking, chunking, thunking, plunking (and some bunk as well) to shatter eardrums and nerves.
The other villain is Sam Rockwell as a would-be Tony Stark (the press notes referring to him wittily as a polyester imitation). He is an arms dealer with a gift for patter and Rockwell relishes his role as well.
Garry Shandling, who has the last line insult to Iron Man, is a hostile senator in a government hearing. He and others feel that Iron Man's suit is the equivalent of a weapon which rogue individuals or states could reproduce (with some mockery at North Korean and Iranian nuclear ambitions). In fact, the US government is wary. Samuel L. Jackson' s division has their eye on Tony and has its plant, Scarlet Johansson (who gets a chance to do martial arts with flair at the end), in his office. Even the government liaison, Rhodey (Don Cheadle replacing Terrence Howard), Tony's good friend is now wary.
Given that Tony is having difficulties of the heart – his booster against the ill chemical effects of wearing his Iron Man suit is becoming less effective – and he is still squabbling with his assistant Virginia 'Pepper' Potts (a not very lively or persuasive Gwynneth Paltrow). Plus, Tony sees some old footage of his father and his advice to his son. Legacy is important to him.
Director Jon Favreau's part as Tony's driver and bodyguard has been amplified and his in front of camera scenes indicate how much he is enjoying directing the film.
Robert Downey's pep speech at the Stark Expo at the beginning is a tour-de-force of 'I am' and it is gratifying to note at the end that he concurs with the psychological report that states his is extreme narcissism.
All going commercially normally, Iron Man will be back.
IT'S A WONDERFUL AFTERLIFE
(UK, 2009, d. Gurinda Chadha)
No prizes for realising where this comedy (ghosts instead of angels!) comes from. This is 21st century Capraesque observing of human nature – a wry portrait with optimism.
The most important thing to note is that the setting is West London in Southall and Ealing. The majority of characters are of Indian origin living in England. And the director has made Bhaji on the Beach, Bend it Like Beckham, Bride and Prejudice, and Angus, Sandals and Snogging, all of which offer British Indian characters to the audience portrayed and to a wider audience which helps relationships between ethnic groups in the UK.
There was an immediate consensus amongst the reviewers when they saw that some of the film was made at Ealing Studies – they decided it was less like an Ealing comedy than a 'Curry On...' comedy! And there is more than a touch of Bollywood comedy, engagement parties, weddings and some dancing and music.
It's a Wonderful Life is not the only film referenced here. The director has alluded to Blithe Spirit. There is an extensive pastiche imitation of the bucket of blood sequence in Carrie. The ghosts also watch and comment on television like those in Truly, Madly Deeply. There is an allusion to the famous stomach scene in Alien. Placing this comedy in the movie tradition offers some smiles and laughs.
This is a film about Indian families' preoccupation (obsession) with getting their children (especially as they grow older and are less immediately attractive) engaged and married. Mrs Sethi wants her chubby daughter Roopi engaged so that she can die and join her recently deceased husband. We soon realise, as the police begin to investigate a series of murders (connected with Indian food), that she has not taken too well to criticisms of her daughter. The ghosts turn up, not yet re-incarnated, and decide to help her get her daughter married off (including Zoe Wanamaker as the Jewish next door neighbour and her poodle). The daughter is a down-to-earth woman and is exasperated at all this match-making.
The police (led by Mark Addy) assign an old family friend, the dashing D.S.Murthi (Sendhil Ramamurthi) to infiltrate because Roopi is the main suspect. There are further complications as Roopi's best friend, Linda, has had a trip to an ashram in India, changed her name, become spiritually psychic and is engaged to her assumed soul-mate (Jimi Mistry). She is played with her accustomed verve by Sally Hawkins.
It all seems a lot of good-natured nonsense, though her son tells his mother that her harping on marriage sounds like a broken record. He's right – the repetition and repetition does seem tautologically redundant.
With its broad comic style, it's not meant to be a cinematically literate venture. Rather, as the final credits show, it is all involved having a bit of fun.
(US, 2010, d, Derrick Borte)
The Joneses is quite a smart comedy with a satirical moral perspective. It gives fuller meaning to the phrase, Keeping up with the Joneses because that is precisely what the Joneses are about. If the Russians could insert sleeper Communist cells and agents into ordinary USA, then why can't the capitalists!
The Joneses are presented and present themselves as the fulfilment of the American dream, the consumerist American dream. They have everything that opens and shuts, everything stylish that does just that bit more than other products. They are skilled in showing them off and mentioning them quite openly but discreetly so that everyone rushes out in covetous glee to buy and buy and buy.
Steve, the fake dad, is played with nonchalent charm by David Duchovny, capitalising on his past career as a car salesman with a genially chatty pitch. He was also a golf instructor. Seeing him in action makes us realise how susceptible competitive players are out on the golf course. Demi Moore fits her role perfectly, glamorous but with that bit of steel as the boss of the cell (it is actually called a cell). Amber Heard is the attractive but amoral daughter who has to learn about life's knocks the hard way. Ben Hollingworth shows a vulnerable ambiguity as Michael.
The focus on the Symonds next door becomes the counterpoint to the Joneses. The wife rehearses a spiel for selling cosmetics to her nighbours. The husband, feeling neglected by his wife, befriends Steve, especially in playing golf, but is the key character keeping up with the Joneses, vainly assuming that Steve is jealous of him, never realising how Steve is playing him, and shows how disastrous is the envious attempt to keep up, how self-destructive with tragic fallout for others. The Symonds are played very well by Glenne Headley and Gary Cole.
While it seems that these family cells are breeding success all over America (and, according to images in the final credits, on all other continents except Australia!), these Joneses have to undergo a crisis of honesty, self-worth and moral stances.
The dialogue is clever. The cast keep the satire believable. And the film, even with its 'American' happy ending, is an effective contemporary warning fable.