SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS MAY 2009
LAST SONG, The
NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, A
ROOM AND A HALF, A
THE LAST SONG
(US, 2010, d. Julie Anne Robinson)
Check the credentials before making a decision whether to see The Last Song or not.
The first thing to note is that it is a dramatic star vehicle for Miley Cyrus, better known for her Disney television series, movie and concert tours as Hannah Montana. She is more of a presence on screen rather than an actress, though she is still young, 17, and time is on her side.
The second thing to note is that the film is based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks. That is enough to turn the anti-weepie crowds away (and there are plenty of tears here). While Sparks has worked on this screenplay himself, he has such a following (and with film versions of Message in a Bottle, A Walk to Remember, The Notebook, Nights in Rodanthe and Dear John) that devotees of his stories can get quite upset when the film does not meet their experience of the novels – and comments from dissatisfied fans seem to indicate that this is the case here.
The niche market seems to be teenage girls who can identify with Miley Cyrus and the situations in the story and respond very well to heartthrob, Liam Hemsworth (all the way from Australia to Georgia) with, maybe, an appeal to their mothers who take them to see The Last Song.
So, all in all, it is a romantic tearjerker, American style.
Miley Cyrus' character, Ronnie, is initially a surly pain in the neck, especially to her father because of her resentment at his having left his wife (Kelly Preston), her brother (a lively Bobby Coleman) and herself. But, you know it is going to end well, even if tearfully – the point is seeing how the film gets there and how it takes you along.
It is summer on the Georgia coast. Turtle eggs play a significant role (and there are some nice National Geographic sequences in there). So does making a stained glass window for a burnt church. There is scenery, fashion, teen angst, bonding, friendship, falling in love, illness, death, fights, snobbery, sense of betrayal, reconciliation and Greg Kinnear's performance as Ronnie's father to take it up a notch or two.
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET
(US, 2010, d. Samuel Bayer)
But, this version is alarmingly relevant to one of the main problems troubling contemporary society.
It is 26 years since the release of Wes Craven's most successful horror film, A Nightmare on Elm Street. Halloween had appeared in 1978 with several sequels following, highlighting the mad and terrorising Michael Myers. Friday the 13th had appeared in 1980 with the dead and terrorising Jason Voorhees – and at least ten sequels. But, Nightmare on Elm Street produced a horror icon to rival or, really, to outdo these, with Robert Englund's Freddy Krueger with his hat and pullover, his burnt face and his glove with razor finger extensions. And it led to six sequels. The first two villains have appeared in recent remakes. Now it is the turn of Freddy Krueger, played by Jackie Earle Haley who lives up to Englund's portrayal.
This is a more polished production than the original. In one way it is more straightforward. There are five victim students who are tormented by nightmares where they fear that if they go to sleep, Krueger will kill them in their dreams and they will die in reality. Their fears are justified. However, the final two decide to combat Krueger in their dreams on the premiss that if he dies in the dreams, he dies in reality. (Sequels seem to preclude this conclusion.)
This time, the plot is basically the same, the names, except for Nancy, being different and the parents having different occupations. It is interesting that the cheerleader and jock looking characters do die while the less glamorous students are the ones to fight another day.
Where this film raises interest, especially in these times of consciousness of sexual abuse of children, is the character of Freddy Krueger and his motivations for torment and vengeance. In the original, he was associated with children, but his crime was murder and he was burned and killed by vigilante parents. This time he is still burned and killed by the parents but the reason is sexual abuse. He is a gardener at a pre-school who plays with the children– and flashbacks throughout the film show him as ordinary (though Jackie Earle Haley at the best of times cannot look very ordinary, being short with features that can easily be made to appear sinister) and then reveal his behaviour with the children. This makes the film and its images more relevant than might have been expected and lead to some reflection on these images.
First of all, the film provides in Freddy Krueger a monstrous iconic image of the evil of sexual abuse. It reminds us of how horrible the experience is for children, especially little children. No matter how charming and seductive the abuser might be and behave, Freddy Krueger reminds us by showing us the monstrously harmful personality within.
Secondly, the film shows that the children might repress their memories, and their parents have encouraged this so that the children will be safe and psychologically unharmed. The film suggests that, despite the repression of the memories, the reality of the experience and its scars are still there and can re-appear nightmarishly and destructively.
Thirdly, the film reminds us that these crimes lead parents and adults into shock and then into the temptation to vengeance and vindictiveness. The film shows angry parents, for mixed motives of rage and wanting to protect their children, unwilling to stay within the legal system for justice and retribution and taking the law into their own executing hands.
It is surprising to find that watching the re-inventing of a popular 1980s horror film franchise for the 21st century makes us realise how evil sexual abuse of children is – and how we have become so much more conscious of it and the depths of repercussions than we were in 1984.
(US, 2007, d. Andrew Shortall)
Quite a creepy film for those who enjoy feeling uncomfortable and fearful at the movies.
The setting is a hospital due for demolition. The only activity is sorting out files – and, of course, the leading lady, Roslyn (Sara Foster) takes on the night shift (her husband, Cole (Gabriel Mann) drives taxis at night, so this gives them some time together). The reason for anxiety is that there is a serial killer on the loose (which is how the film starts) and, it emerges, the victims all have files at the hospital. And action takes place only at night.
This offers the opportunity for Roslyn to wander the abandoned corridors with the slowest possible steps as the music ominously suggests frightening presences, for her to ride up in the sinister lift, look into files, hear noises and, in general, keep herself and the audience on edge. She even begins to suspect that her husband is the serial killer.
There is a kindly secretary (Colleen Camp) who got Roslyn the job despite details in her back story which are gradually revealed. She also meets a genial doctor sorting documents on the fifth floor, a British therapist, who listens to her story (Cary Elwes). And the investigating detective, Michael Biehn, keeps turning up.
There are a whole lot of strange occurrences. Is Roslyn imagining some or all of them, is she dreaming, are her flashbacks, especially concerning her abusive father and his death, actual? Needless to say, there are a few more deaths, some plot developments that are baffling at times so that we are not too sure what is happening. Probably, Roslyn isn't either. But, it doesn't matter all that much since atmosphere and creepy feelings are the most important thing.
The copyright on the film is 2007. Perhaps, the writer had been reading Denis Lehane because Psych 9 has a very Shutter Island feel about it.
(US, 2010, d. Miguel Sapochnik)
Ugly story. Ugly treatment.
One of the ugliest of contemporary criminal activities is that of trading in body parts. There are frequent headlines about men and women from poorer countries being exploited for body parts for transplants for wealthy clients. Dirty Pretty Things was a 2002 drama on this theme set in London. One of the Kenneth Branagh Wallander films concerned this kind of exploitation in Africa.
However, Repo Men is rather different. This time, in the near future (looking a touch like the world of Blade Runner or I, Robot), a company called The Union supplies transplants but charges exorbitant fees and, like many banks, is demanding when it comes to re-payments. Payment failures mean that The Union reclaims the parts and sends out its staff of repo men who stun the subject and then, with surgical precision but rather unsurgically remove the part (all checked with computer information concerning failure to repay as well as indications for the correct location of the part). Since one of these 'operations' is shown near the beginning of the film, potential audiences will be able to gauge whether this is the kind of incision-excisions scene they want to watch.
The message is fairly clear. The Union represents all those heartless (not exactly, they do supply hearts here) corporations who are merciless in getting their capital back. The message is also clear on the double standards that the repo officials can use in their own lives. They track down victims relentlessly and then can go home to wife, child and barbecues with friends.
The two repo men here are played by Jude Law and Forest Whitaker, serious actors, and one wonders what it was that appealed to them about this project and why they consented to be in it. They give of their best, especially Jude Law, who has to undergo a change of heart (both literally and emotionally). Liev Schreiber is the smooth-talking conscienceless manager of The Union.
Not that there aren't some effective sequences, for instance the fugitives suddenly entering a vast white room where masked assemblers all dressed in white are at their desks. But, soon after this there is a massacre of personnel in a corridor which looks as if the film-makers had overdosed on Kill Bill Volume 1. Taking a cue from a fellow reviewer: this is grim repo.
(Austria, 2008, d. Gotz Spielmann)
Revanche: revenge,vengeance, retaliation.
This is a well-made Austrian film, a serious drama with touches of police and crime thriller. But, mainly, it is about the inner lives of five people who are interconnected by a tragedy.
There is symbolism in the credits sequence, a still camera focussing on a pool when, unexpectedly, a stone is tossed into the water and the splash sends out ripples. At the end credits there is silence except for birds chirping, sounds of a storm and then rain falling. Apart from a few slight tracking shots, all the sequences are comprised of fixed camera shots, movement within the frame but action sometimes outside the screen frame. A more contemplative style of film-making.
The early part of the film spends a great deal of time and attention on two of those people. Tamara is from the Ukraine, one of the many women from Eastern Europe who are caught up in prostitution. She works in a brothel in Vienna. Fairly impassive about what she has to do for customers, she is concerned about money and future security. But, she is in love with Alex, a middle-aged man from the country who is a general rouseabout in the brothel.
At the same time, we see the tranquil life of a married couple, he, Robert, mowing the lawn, she, Suzanne, cooking the evening meal. He is a local policeman who, by chance, is caught up in a bank robbery getaway and fires a shot after the car. There is a great deal of reflection on bad luck and chance.
The other character is Alex's grandfather, an 80 year old farmer, who lives near the policeman and his wife, the wife being kind to him at the supermarket she runs and giving him lifts to church as well as encouraging him to take up playing the piano accordion again. Alex stays with him, chopping his wood supply.
The bank robbery is not shown, just the getaway and the shot. But, this episode has repercussions for all the characters, especially for retaliation for the shot fired.
The film is very emotional, especially in portraying grief and depression. One can understand the feelings of the characters, the most puzzling of whom is the policeman's wife. Her feelings and motivations are quite complex and we might still wonder at the end what they really are.
Strong performances, dramatic without being melodramatic, ensure audience involvement in the lives of each character, the audience all the time being challenged as to where their sympathies lie and whether there should be revanche or not.
A ROOM AND A HALF
(Russia, 2008, d. Andrey Khrzharnovskiy)
Whether you have heard of or read the poems of Nobel Literature Prize winner, Joseph Brodsky, is not essential to being fascinated by this imaginative Russian film. The makers suggest that it is not related to actual characters even though it serves as part portrait and a touch of biography. It is mainly a creative interpretation of the meaning of his life.
Brodsky, who died in 1996 at the age of 55, was born during World War II in Leningrad, a city which suffered greatly during the war, much of it being destroyed and large numbers of the population dying. The Brodskys were Jewish Russians.
The biographical aspects of the story show the father returning from official work in China in 1948, the young boy's strong bonds with both his parents but the hardships that increased as the Soviet years went on. He is something of a philosopher and poet and is at times awkward with his peers. That changes somewhat in the 1960s as he is tantalised, as were so many of the young adults of the time, with the post-Stalinist (comparative) freedoms. (There is a scene where a teacher comes almost hysterically into a class and announces the death of Stalin and everyone falls to the floor in grief). Ultimately, Brodsky had to leave Russia and settled in the US, where he became a professor and was naturalised.
However, the poetic notion of this film is that he did return to the now St Petersburg, re-assessing his life and ideas and meeting his dead parents. He says that memory is like a film, scenes flowing (not necessarily in chronological order) and being edited. This is a film of memories, both of what was and what might have been.
The director is a noted Russian animator and documentary maker and there are many animated sequences (especially with a cat who was a family favourite). This is his first feature film (made in his late 60s). Lovers of classical Russian films will delight in his vision, artistry, his visuals, his portrait of St Petersburg (from the elegant city of Brodsky's childhood to the beautiful modern city which does now serve as an incongruous backdrop to contemporary shops and takeaways and casual dress that Stalin would never have approved of.
There are some poignant sequences of phone calls from prosperous America to dingy Leningrad where Brodsky's parents interpret their son's calls as his being ill and deprived of food. There is this yearning in Brodsky for his homeland – he never did return in fact – and for his parents. The parents are the strongest characters in the film, conveying with great feeling what it was like to live through those years - and be thwarted by officialdom in their attempts to get permission to go to the US to visit their son. They are memorably portrayed by Sergei Yursky and (especially) Alisa Frejlindkh. Grigoriy Dityatkovskiy is Brodsky.
Contemplative cinema is still alive – as is the spirit and style of Tarkvosky.
(US, 2009, d. Mans Marlind and Bjorn Stein)
Shelter has a very gentle sound about it. But, that is not the case for this psychological thriller which veers into what is often called 'supernatural' elements with some touches of horror. There have been a number of films about, like the 1997 Denzel Washington film, Fallen, where the souls of a person can migrate from one human carrier to another. The human carrier provides a shelter.
The film opens with a psychiatrist, Caroline, Julianne Moore, explaining to a committee hearing an appeal for a murderer to be granted a stay of execution that she does not believe in cases of multiple personalities – she says it is a feature of sensationalist Hollywood movies! When she gets home, her father, Jeffrey de Munn, whisks her off to meet his latest case. He is played very effectively by Jonathan Rhys Meyers – and she discovers that, if he doesn't have multiple personalities inside, then there do seem to be several people in there. And he displays quite different performances for each of them as well as mimicking the speaking manner of some of those sheltering.
So far, so familiar. However, God (who actually tops the list of those who are thanked explicitly in the final credits) becomes an important theme. Despite her husband having been brutally murdered by a mugger on the way home from church on Christmas eve, the psychiatrist still believes in God. Her young daughter and her father find they cannot. This becomes important in terms of who become carriers for the migrating soul. This all leads Caroline out into the Pennsylvania backwoods and strange communities with odd religious beliefs, bizarre practices and alleged witchcraft.
The visual style of the film is dark and brooding. It is directed by two Swedish directors – who certainly do not feel any obligation to provide a Hollywood ending.
Many reviewers dismissed Shelter as hokum. Of course, it is hokum, psychological and religious. But, despite critical opinion, some of us (this reviewer included) enjoy the speculations , twists and turns of this kind of hokum.
(US, 2010, d. Drew Barrymore)
Ladylike is not the first, second, third or even umpteenth word that springs to mind in connection with the Roller Derby. It is certainly a contact sport for women, at least as practised in Austin, Texas, here, with plenty of bumps and grinds – and, coming of something of a surprise, as explained throughout the film, with a set of rules and many strategies and plays that remind us of (at least the look of) gridiron football.
Actually, this is yet another variation on the sports film formula – which means that we know pretty well where it is going and what are the likely things to happen. Some people don't like formula films and dismiss them as predictable. Others enjoy them because of the familiarity and seeing how what we expect pans out. By and large, with Whip It, you go along with what is happening and where it seems to be obviously going.
This is a directorial first for actress, Drew Barrymore (almost 30 years since ET!). She obviously has something of a passion for the roller derby and stages lots of competition scenes. And she gives herself a substantial role as a player who has a propensity for accidents.
However, the focus of the film is on a teenager called Bliss, whose mother believes in ladylike behaviour and in the elegance and charm of beauty pageants, who insists on Bliss competing. A chance poster advertising the roller derby catches Bliss's eye and, with her best friend with whom she works at the Oink Diner, off she goes to watch – and is recruited. Needless to say, her mother doesn't know.
The mother daughter scenes work well because Bliss is played by Ellen Page who made such an impression with Juno. Mother is played by Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden. In the background is good ole dad who can't tell his wife that he loves to watch football matches on TV (Daniel Stern).
The Hurl Scouts are a tough bunch, as are the main opposition, The Holy Rollers, led by Juliette Lewis, but they welcome Bliss and she finds a home away from home. When a pageant coincides with the Derby final, well..., you know.
For a target audience of teenage girls, it has some messages about excelling in what you are good at as well as some nice, folksy advice about being tolerant with family and sorting out differences honestly – and one can't complain about that.