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Film Reviews May 2012

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SIGNIS REVIEWS MAY 2012


ACT OF VALOR
AVENGERS, The
BATTLESHIP
CAFÉ DE FLORE
FOOTNOTE
IRVINE WELSH’S ECSTASY
KING OF DEVIL’S ISLAND, The/ KONGEN AV BASTOY
LADY, The
LUCKY ONE, The
REBELLION/ L’ORDRE ET LA MORALE
ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS
SAFE
SPUD
THIS MUST BE THE PLACE
WOMAN IN THE 5TH



ACT OF VALOR

US, 2012,
Directed by Mike Mc Coy, Scott Waugh,

The promotion for this film highlights the fact that several actual Navy Seals take the central roles. While their acting is no great shakes, they bring an authenticity to the many action sequences throughout the film. It does not disguise the fact that it is a piece of cinema propaganda for the Seals and their patriotic spirit and acts of valor for the United States – and may well attract quite a number of recruits. But, as with any program that takes a ‘hawkish’ stance and presents it with quite some gung ho relish, there are the perpetual questions about military methods and actions.

The film offers some moments of training but takes much of that for granted. It also focuses on the Seals in action after receiving intelligence about their mission, though the film does not show the workings of the intelligence agencies and how they come by their intel.

We are introduced to the group and learn a little about their backgrounds and their families. One of the Seals is married and his wife is expecting. Another does a voiceover, talking to the child about the character of his father, so we know there is going to be death and sadness.

The film opens with an act of terrorist barbarity in the bombing of some children and the American ambassador at a school in Manila. This sets the plot in motion for a war against drugs and against terror. The action sequences, signaled by an on-screen map with technical location details, take place in Costa Rica, Ukraine, off the African Coast and in Mexico.

Needless to say, seeing the Seals in action, has many exciting moments, especially a raid in Costa Rica against drug dealers to rescue an abducted agent. The main villain is a Ukrainian who is providing a childhood friend from Chechnya with a sophisticated, undetectable vest filled with ceramic pellets which will explode like shrapnel and intended for a group of suicide bombers in the principal American cities. The climax of the film is the search and destroy mission in Mexico for the leader and his suicide squad.

As always in this kind of story, we realise that the villains are unscrupulous, have many violent means at their disposal and that there are forces out there who are protecting us, involved in dangers on our behalf as we sit in the cinema and watch this kind of action drama.


THE AVENGERS

US, 2012,
Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Scarlet Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jeremy Renner, Gwynneth Paltrow.
Directed by Joss Whedon.

How many superheroes does it take to save the world, especially from invaders from other planets who plan global control and have the Tessaract, a source of unlimited energy, at their disposal? Such is the question posed by this new Marvel Comics extravanganza (3D and all).

With all respect to the particular powers of each of the superheroes gathered as the Avengers Team, they cannot save the world by themselves.

When Loki (that meddlesome god, Thor’s brother, here reappearing in the form of Tom Hiddleston who often steals the show with his smug presumption and mischievous repartee) arrives on earth to achieve his mission, S.H.I.E.L.D, under the leadership of Nick Fury (Samuel L.Jackson) decides to call in the help. This means that Tony Stark and Pepper Potts (Robert Downey and Gwynneth Paltrow) have to make different plans. Bruce Banner (keeping his Hulk anger under control in the form of Mark Ruffalo) has to come in from charity work in India at the behest of Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson has a lot more to do in this one than in Iron Man 2). Now we know why Captain America (Chris Evans) has been frozen until this moment - for a new mission. And, since, Thor is Loki’s brother, the god himself turns up speaking, as one reviewer cleverly put it, like a Shakespearian Druid.

This takes up the first part of the film, audiences enjoying the opportunity to see their old heroes again. Robert Downey steals the show with his self-confident, boastful and amusing one-liners, especially taunting the rather stolid Captain America and the fighting-for-control Dr Banner. Meantime, Loki is enjoying himself at the expense of all.

The second part is the attack and the defence. Not all going well at first, especially for Hulk and Thor who find themselves hurtled into almost oblivion. But… After an attack on Manhattan (plenty of destruction) and the ruling council (very hawkish) sending a nuclear warhead to destroy the invaders, there is only split second timing for Iron Man to intercept and destroy the bomb and for Natasha Romanoff and scientist Erik Selvig (Skellan Skarsgaard recovered after he and agent Barton, Jeremy Renner, have been transformed into allies by Loki) to close the portal and destroy the aliens.

The closing credits include some indications of the future (but, the ever eager to rush to the exit at any sign of a credit audience will have missed them).

The fans are acclaiming Joss Whedon as the master of this kind of Marvel movie adventure.


BATTLESHIP

US, 2012,
Taylor Kitsch, Alexander Skarsgaard, Liam Neeson.
Directed by Peter Berg.

Something like a cross between Pearl Harbour and The Transformers series. Which means that director, Michael Bay, might be a bit envious of this action and boom (many booms) spectacle that is set in Hawaii and has Aliens and Alien space vehicles that transform at will. Actually, the Hasbro company is responsible for Transformers and its merchandise as well as for the board game Battleship and the new merchandise.

It all starts off very Americanly, scenes in a bar, a stupid attempt at heroism for a beautiful blonde who wants a take away burrito. Then we have a soccer game in which our hero gets kicked in the mouth and loses a penalty goal, Japan beating the US as they gather for naval exercises in Pearl Harbour. Another brawl and the hero losing his opportunity to ask the blonde’s father for her hand. And he is the admiral.

There is also information given about signals and satellites, attempting communication with Planet G which seems to have similar atmosphere to earth’s. There is a geeky scientist there who controls the communication.

Before you can say USS Missouri (which also features in this film), there is not only communication from Planet G, but huge vehicles land in the Pacific interrupting the naval games, but one lands on Hong Kong – quite a spectacular demolition of the city. Soon Honolulu gets something of the same treatment, especially by giant rotating, knife wielding fireballs.

When the aliens have almost a 99% upper hand, we are wondering who is going to save the world and how. Needless to say, it is our hero, Alex Hopper, played by Taylor Kitsch, more amenable here than as John Carter on Mars. His main assistant is singer, Rihanna, in her first acting role, one of the boys, as it is said. We hear, ‘What the hell is that?’ many times and the dialogue tends to be variations on this.

Putting aside the 70 years memories of Pearl Harbour, and the Japanese bombings of the US navy, a Japanese expert works with Alex to bomb the aliens. By chance, one of the officers puts on an alien helmet and remembers that it is like exposing his pet lizard to the sun – yes, the aliens cannot see in the sun. In the meantime, the blonde who works on physical therapy with injured veterans, is on the mountain where the transmitters are. So, bomb the alien craft, blind the aliens and destroy the transmitting dishes. (With interventions from the Pentagon.)

And, of all things, the USS Missouri (analogue not digital) is put into service for the bombardment with the veterans who had gathered for the memorial going into action. In the final credits they are described as ‘old salts’.

Much of the film is literally explosive. It is also far-fetched – we hope. But, at the beginning and the end there are moments of gravity, because Liam Neeson is the Admiral. The world survives, medals are awarded and Alex has the opportunity to ask for the admiral’s daughter’s hand.

(There is a minute or two after the credits which is set in Scotland – a tantalizing episode in case there is Battleship II. But, I was the only person in the cinema who saw it.)


CAFÉ DE FLORE

Canada, 2011,
Vanessa Paradis, Kevin Parent,
Directed by Jean- Marc Vallee.

This is a film to surrender to if you can rather than detach yourself from and analyse the plots. Because there are plots, two of them. If you are alert to music, clothes and fashions as well as makes of cars, you will soon realise that one of the stories takes place in Paris in the late 1960s. The other story is contemporary. Set in Canada. We are introduced to the central character in each story with an extensive explanation which sets a tone for our feelings and response.

This would be all right if each story were self-contained. But, they are not. The film, edited by its director, Jean- Marc Vallee, moves constantly between one and the other (and the stories move around in time as well). Are there connections?

The discarded wife in Canada looks like the mother in the Paris story. The song Café de Flore recurs, as do other songs in each story, the songs becoming something like themes for particular characters. They also evoke memories of past experiences. The Canadian daughter uses music to goad her father about his breaking up his marriage.

Towards the end, the ex-wife consults a medium and there is discussion about soul-mates in life and love, as well as possible links with (reincarnation?) soul-mates living in other times and places. These are evocative suggestions rather than logical arguments – and may be hard to accept by those who would prefer some clear reasoning rather than mystical intimations.

Kevin Parent is Antoine, turning forty. We are told he exudes happiness. But, he is in therapy, is leaving his devoted wife and daughters, wants to marry a pretty young woman, half his age, who is in love with him. Depending on how much we identify with the ex-wife and her pain, Antoine becomes less and less sympathetic. This is familiar material, worth dramatising nonetheless.

But, it will be the Paris story which commands our attention and feelings. Jacqueline (a fine Vanessa Paradis) gives birth to a Downs baby and her husband abandons them – he says he doesn’t want to spend his life as a missionary. The film traces Jacqueline’s devotion to her son, Laurent. She has a moment in Church when she realises that Laurent is the mission and meaning of her life. At seven, he is enrolled in a school for ‘ordinary’ children, managing generally but not quite. Jacqueline could not do more for him, lavishing her love. Laurent deeply loves his mother. When he becomes attached to another Downs child, Vero, literally holding on to her, it is a challenge to Jacqueline who realises but refuses to face the fact that she eventually has to let him go. The child actor is wonderful and this story, though sad, is often exhilarating.

The mystical suggestion is that Laurent and Antoine are soul-mates. Not sure that many would want to spend time reflecting on this. So, staying with the stories themselves and their unfolding dramas, there is a great deal to interest and to enjoy.


THE FOOTNOTE

Israel, 2011,
Shlomo Bar- Aba, Lior Ashkenaze,
Directed by Joseph Cedar.

‘Erudition’ is the word. Audience delight in erudition is needed to enjoy this film. It is definitely a pre-requisite. An interest in Jewish erudition and exploration of Talmudic texts would not go amiss either.

This means that the film has a limited audience. Those who would like to see a film about scholars and researchers should see it. Those interested in fine film-making no matter what the topic should also see it. It made such an impression at home that it was Israel’s entry for the 2011 Oscar for Best Foreign Language film and reached the final five.

Writer-director, Joseph Cedar, who had made the arresting film about the Israeli army and its fort in Lebanon during the end of the conflict with Lebanon in the 1990s, Beaufort, has based his screenplay on an incident in his own life: a wrong message about who had been awarded a significant prize.

This film opens with an award ceremony and a speech but the camera stays for a long time fixed on the face of the father of the recipient, plenty of time for us to wonder who he is and why he is not responding happily to the speech of his son. Cedar then uses some artificial devices to inform us: five bits of data, listed, about the father and his life and career, five about the son. The father is an old-style scholar, meticulously scientific in his examination and cataloguing of documents and archeological finds. He despises what passes for contemporary scholarship, especially his son’s, who works more intuitively and explores themes rather than details of texts.

Then the crisis. The father has been nominated for sixteen years for the Israel Prize but has never won. He now receives a message to say that the prize is finally his. But, we realise, there has been a communications mistake and that the prize was really for the son. The son knows this. What is he to do? Claim the prize and further alienate his critical father? Or, remain silent and make a sacrifice for his father?

A highlight of the film is the dramatic cross-cutting from scenes of the son writing the official citation while his father is being interviewed by a young journalist and becomes uninhibited in his criticisms and condemnations of his son’s kind of scholarship.

At one stage, the son’s wife refers to her father-in-law as ‘autistic’. This makes a lot of sense of the character and Shlomo Bar- Aba’s performance as the unemotional, not empathetic, father whose career has been controlled by strict criteria of scholarship, who can be alarmed by sudden and strident noise and flashing lights.

And the ending? It is one of those which leaves the action just when you are hoping for a clear plot line and indications for the future. It is over to us to reflect on what we might do, whether father or son, and speculate on what will happen. Fine film-making, but specialist.


IRVINE WELSH’S ECSTASY

Canada, 2011,
Adam Sinclair, Kristin Kreuk, Stephen Mc Hattie, Billy Boyd.
Directed by Rob Heydon.

Irvine Welsh is famous for his books, especially about the world of drugs. Trainspotting became a cult film by Danny Boyle which was followed by Paul Mc Guigan’s The Acid House. A film version of Welsh’s novel Filth was set to follow Ecstasy. With Ecstasy, as the title immediately suggests, he is back in the drug world.

While this is a Canadian production, the exteriors were filmed in Edinburgh where the story is set. With so much of the filming done on the streets of the city, those who know the city will find it very familiar, giving the film an authentic feel. Interiors were filmed in Canada with some Canadian cast.

However, the central role is taken by Scot Adam Sinclair. He plays 28 year old Lloyd Buist, no job, man about town, especially at the clubs where he loves to dance, involved at times as a drug courier, with trips to Amsterdam, spending drug-high time with his close friends. No future, only the present.

For the first half hour, we are immersed in the club world, the music, the noise, the sex, the drugs. We begin to feel that if this is all the ecstasy world can offer, it would be better to leave. The appeal would be only to clubbers who wanted to see images of themselves on screen.

However, with some relief for us, a few human feelings are eventually introduced. Lloyd loves his old father (an interesting performance from Stephen Mc Hattie) who is still grieving his wife’s death, drinking and diagnosed with cancer. Lloyd is not without some redemptive values. However, even though he becomes attracted to a visiting Canadian woman (Kristin Kreuk) and is offered the possibility to change, he can’t do it. He is in debt to the deputy to the Edinburgh drug boss, a merciless brute with thug henchmen, who is not above bashing Lloyd’s girlfriend. Lloyd is forced to go on another trip to Amsterdam, buys some extra drugs to sell and pay off his debts. He swallows the bags – and they burst on the flight back home. He still gets through passport control as he is disguised as a priest.

The trouble for Lloyd is that he lacks vision, the possibilities for an alternate life. His girlfriend finally gives up on him.

One of Lloyd’s friends, Woodsy, is played by Billy Boyd as an obsessed ecstasy-taker, an ecstasy-devourer, an apostle for the drugs, who is taken off to hospital and rehabilitation. He clashes with a priest which gives him the chance to sound off against God and to declare that the drugs are the means of salvation.

While watching the clubbing can be wearying, the film moves to something of a moralising end, especially with the death and funeral of Lloyd’s father. Whether it would convert characters like Woodsy, it is difficult to say – though there is Woodsy sitting in the front row at the funeral. With Irvine Welsh’s name as part of the title, it is definitely an immersion in an Irvine Welsh world.


KING OF DEVIL’S ISLAND/ KONGEN AV BASTOY

Norway, 2010,
Stellan Skarsgaard, Benjamin Helstad, Kristoffer Joner,
Directed by Marius Holst

The physical, mental and sexual abuse of minors has become a key issue in many societies. Films have reflected this concern. The trend is developing in cultures beyond English-speaking countries where it has been a justice issue for more than a decade.

This film is based on a true story. Its setting is an institution for wayward boys in Norway, 1915, the island of Borstoy off the Norwegian coast.

Erling is 17 and is transported with a younger boy to the island. They are read the rules, given uniforms and told that they would be referred to always as C19 and C5. Another boy, who has been at Borstoy for six years (from the age of 11) for stealing from the Church poor box, is C1 and is about to be released. These are the central characters amongst a large group of inmates.

The institution is presided over by Stellan Skarsgaard who, in another life, might have been a benign administrator, but who imposes the rules despite their cruelty and, when a crisis arises because of sexual abuse, covers up for the sake of the common good – an argument that was used in all kinds of organisations.

The look of the film is bleak, often wintry, dark and blue-grey in tone. There is little relief for the boys or for the staff.

The plot is more or less as expected, hardships and humiliations, a suicide, escape attempts, a revolt by the boys, attacks on the staff. In the context, they often feel quite desperate. There is a pervading metaphor for the central characters. Erling has worked as a harpoonist on a whaling ship and tells the story of a wounded whale that survives a day with three harpoons in its multi-scarred body. He is the wounded whale – and he develops the story to embrace his perspective on C1, the staff and the governor of the institute.

Little relief while watching the film. The cast is persuasive. The wrongs appalling. This is the kind of film that becomes part of learning from history as well as a challenge to conscience and alertness to these problems in our own day.


THE LADY

France/UK,
Michelle Yeoh, David Thewliss,
Directed by Luc Besson.

I am glad that I saw this film and can say that I was moved by it. It is a tribute to Aung San Suu Kyi, one of the most significant public figures of the late twentieth century, early 21st century, a strong woman and political leader.

Some audiences have expressed disappointment because they wanted more political background and analysis. But this is to misunderstand the intentions of the film-makers. It is not a documentary, which is a better vehicle for elaborating the political history of Burma and analyzing the role of Aung San Suu Kyi and her leadership. Nor is the film a biography, although we learn the general outline of her life and her relationship with her husband and children. Rather, the film is a cinema portrait. Any portrait does not offer the whole picture. Rather, a portrait is a selection of the subject’s features, an interpretation of the person, their life and work. Every portrait is only partial.

Another objection to the film is that of high-minded critics who declare that French director, Luc Besson, who once made critic-worthy films in the 1980s and 1990s has been responsible in more recent times for many commercial action shows, like The Transporter series with Jason Statham, has no business making the film. They think that he is not worthy to make a film about such an important world figure!

That said, The Lady is a more emotional film portrait of its subject. Michelle Yeoh looks like Aung San Suu Kui and presents her as a woman of dignity and gravitas. It is there in the way she speaks, moves, the small detail of breeding and courtesy, her ability to be at ease with all those she comes in contact with. We see the public demeanour (especially in the re-creation of the famous episode where she confronts the armed soldiers and walks through their ranks – a scene reproduced more spectacularly but no less movingly in John Boorman’s Beyond Rangoon). We see the private woman in her role as wife and mother.

The film opens with the assassination of her father and the family moving to England. Her father’s political significance is an important aspect for people approaching her in 1988 (just over forty years after his death) to form an opposition political party and lead it.

However, the structure of the film focuses on Michael Aris, the Oxford University lecturer she married, and on her two sons, opening in 1998. David Thewliss brings a strength to Michael Aris’s love and loyalty. We learn almost immediately that Michael Aris has been diagnosed with cancer. He has not seen his wife for three years. The film then goes back to 1988 and Aung San Suu kui’s decision to go back to Rangoon to be with her dying mother. She has not left since. Most people know of her campaigning during the election at the end of the 80s, the generals disregard of the results, her being placed under house arrest and spending the better part of twenty years in that situation. In the meantime, there were some visits from her family, but Michael was refused a visa in his dying years and he and his wife made an agreement that for the good of Burma, she should stay and not put herself in the position of being unable to return. Her years of house internment were compounded by the personal sacrifice in the love for her husband.

He, meanwhile, put her name forward for the Nobel Peace Prize which she was awarded in 1991.

Oxford contrasts with Burma (the makers using Thai locations for the film), but the film has a strong sense of local colour and a feel for the people and Burmese history. It can be said that the Generals do not come out well, somewhat caricatured, even superstitious as they cling to power and keep surveillance tight on Aung Sang Suu Kyi. But, maybe, that is what this kind of isolated power bunch is like.

The film was completed before the election results of 2011 and the emergence of The Lady on the Burmese and world scene again.


THE LUCKY ONE,

US, 2012,
Zac Efron, Taylor Schilling, Blythe Danner,
Directed by Scott Hicks.

For over twenty years, audiences have enjoyed the emotional and romantic film versions of novels by Nicholas Sparks. They range from Message in a Bottle to The Last Song, a star vehicle for Miley Cyrus. The most popular has been The Notebook. The recent Dear John had a war theme. So does The Lucky One.

Opening in Iraq with an ambush and deaths, the film sets a contemporary tone. Logan (Zac Efron) survives, especially when he notices a photo in the rubble and picks it up, just missing being killed by an explosive device. He is nervous during convalescence with his sister and her children and decides to identify the lighthouse in the photo – which takes him to Louisiana.

All might have been simple had he been able to explain why he had come. The woman in the photo, Beth (a sympathetic Taylor Schilling) thinks he is odd but her feisty mother (Blythe Danner) hires Logan to work in their business of walking and caring for dogs (something of a treat for dog-loving audiences). Beth is divorced from the local policeman, son of the local mayor, who has spent his life trying to match his father’s expectations, and not succeeding. She also has a son.

As expected, Logan bonds with the son, works hard with the dogs, lives a quiet and reflective life, falls in love with Beth and is threatened by the husband. As expected, there has to be something of a crisis when Beth learns the truth about Logan. This is more melodramatic than anticipated.

As with Sparks’ other stories, there is a special communication that is at the core of the story whether it be a message in a bottle, a notebook, letters to Dear John, a song or, in this case, the original photo and another which leads to some kind of reconciliation and peace.

Zac Efron is very nice and gets audience sympathy and the hope that there will be a happy ending, which, of course, is the natural outcome of this kind of wide-audience-friendly film.


REBELLION/ L’ORDRE ET LA MORALE

France, 2011,
Mathieu Kassovitz, Iabe Lapakis, Philippe Torreton, Sylvie Testud,
Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz.

A film of more than passing interest for audiences in this part of the world. The setting is an uprising in New Caledonia in 1988, and the harsh putting down of the action (not a rebellion) by the French military, at the time of the presidential elections, the choice between Francois Mitterand and Jacques Chirac.

The title Rebellion is more of a commercial choice than an indication of what takes place. Later in the film, a French minister visiting Noumea talks about authorities having to take drastic action, at the expense of lives, to keep order and morality. Ethical spin. The French title has more depth.

Actor Mathieu Kassovitz wrote the screenplay, adapting a work of fiction based on fact by the character he plays, Philippe Legorjus,from GIGN, the National Gendarmerie Intervention Group, who had military and commando training but who also worked as a mediator in hostage situations. At little notice, he and his team are ordered to the island of Ouvea in New Caledonia because of a group of locals attacking a police station and killing four gendarmes. They have also taken hostages to a cave, which they also do to Legorjus and a group of his men.

What might have been a small action to rescue the hostages or which might have been a more straightforward negotiation for their release becomes a big operation with military, helicopters, a flamethrower – and the deaths of the leader and many of the men. We see the efforts of Legorjus in searching for the first hostages, dealing with the military and the local police and finding himself something of a pawn in the hands of the general and officers in Noumea and then of the politicking of the candidates for the presidency (using an excerpt of a TV debate between the two contenders and their attitudes towards terrorism). He is left ‘hung out to dry’ and then commanded to obey military orders whether he agreed with them or not.

These aspects of the film make sobering viewing, the remoteness of policy and action decision-makers from the actual events and the people involved. ‘It is better for some men to die for the sake of the country.’ (Distractions arise during the film as we think of the last decade in Afghanistan and behaviour of US military as well as the international discussions about the war and NATO and other presence.)

It requires some attention to follow the details of the group that had made the initial attack and their earnest anti-colonialism and demands for autonomy and freedom, but it is made clear what they mean as we watch the French in action, even though New Caledonia is part of France (with a referendum on this scheduled for 2014). Ethnic and racial bigotry are also evident. At the same time, the ‘official’ movement for independence distances itself from this uprising – but the leader, Jean-Marie? Tjibaou, was assassinated a year later (and his memory is now well preserved in the museum in Noumea). We see sympathetic locals trying to mediate as well as a French magistrate who works with Legorjus.

The final part of the film shows us the attack on the cave, immersing the audience in the experience of crawling through the jungle and being under fire. Ultimately, Legorjus is both disillusioned by what has happened and the thwarting of his efforts, agitated by the deaths (especially shootings after the capture of the locals), yet still having to stand by his military oaths of obedience and loyalty.


ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS/ LES EMOTIFS ANONYMES

Benoit Poelvoorde, Isabelle Carre,
Directed by Jean- Pierre Amaris.

The French title is a better and more accurate, especially when we see Angelique (Isabelle Carre) attending a variation on AA where the participants discuss their highly feeling lives and behaviour.

Angelique is publicly awkward but wants a job at a chocolate factory managed (not too well, they are almost bankrupt) by Jean- Rene (Benoit Poelvoorde). He is more awkward than she and attends sessions with a therapist. The therapist tells him to take someone to dinner (that is a real disaster but Angelique blames herself), then to touch someone, which has some surprising results.

In the meantime, we learn more about Angelique and her extraordinary talent for making perfect chocolates. The factory could make a comeback.

This is a very brief film, quite delightful in its way, with pleasant performances from the two leads as they try to deal with their gawkiness and gaffes, discover their love for each other. It is a fairy tale with touches of realism or a realistic story with touches of fantasy, with the light Gallic touch.


SAFE

US, 2012,
Jason Statham, Catherine Chan, Chris Sarandon,
Directed by Boaz Yakin.

It’s a Jason Statham film. That is enough for film fans to know whether they want to see Safe or not. Statham, formerly a champion British Olympic diver, has made a name for himself for more than a decade as an action hero. Acting is not his forte but he is certainly a screen presence. He is strong (very strong in Safe with multi-martial arts), not exactly silent but pretty laconic, somewhat stolid in his approach to life but invigorated by what he sees as injustice and is not inhibited by scruples about a vigilante approach to life and death –generally, death – for the crooked and the corrupt.

And that is what happens here. Actually, there are two initial premises which are interesting though quite disturbing for an action thriller. On the one hand, there is a little Chinese girl who is ultra-gifted in memory and maths. She is taken to the US to be a human computer for a powerful Triad group. They are in conflict for power and money with a brutal Russian gang. And a crack squad of New York’s not so finest are in on the deals. When the Russians abduct the little girl (Catherine Chan is quite effective in the role), she is rescued by Statham.

The Statham sub-plot has tensions in it. In a fixed multi-martial arts fight that he wins instead of losing, the Russians lose money, kill his wife and leave him alive, threatening to kill anyone he gets close to. On the edge, he contemplates killing himself until he notices the little girl hiding on a subway platform. And…. off they go.

The Chinese want Mei back with the important numbers she has memorized for them. The Russians want her. The police want her. This leads to some massive shootouts in Manhattan. The body count is more than excessive, making the action more cartoonish than realistic and so runs the danger of seeming ridiculous.

But, that’s the Jason Statham action genre. This one is fast-paced, introduces a couple of feeling elements (and a tear or two in Statham’s eyes) and is designed to please the fans – which it will.


SPUD

South Africa, 2011,
John Cleese, Troye Sivan,
Directed by Donovan Marsh.

Durban, 1990. Life in South Africa is about to change radically. As shown during this film, F.W. de Klerk, makes his speech in parliament and announces the release of Nelson Mandela.

This is the background to this story of a year of a young boy in boarding school. While the film does not focus so much on the politics, the situation comes to the fore in racist remarks, expressions of fears of the blacks and securing homes with barbed wire and in the place of black African boys in the school.

The film is based on a popular book by John van der Ruit. More bloggers than not are of the opinion that it is quite faithful to the book and its spirit.

The school itself is a mixture of rules and discipline yet a spirit of freedom (and getting away with what you can) on the part of the students. There is the public school look about it, but not quite as controlled as in ‘the good old days’.

John Milton’s parents (or, at least his father and his grandmother) are oddball, even noticeably eccentric. John thinks it might be better to be at boarding school than at home. He is small for his age. His voice has not broken, and he is not yet at the changes of puberty (which leads to the uncomplimentary nickname given him after his being seen in the showers, ‘Spud’). His initial way of thinking is to be one of the boys, to follow the attitudes and behaviour of his peers. We are introduced to the eight in his dormitory with all their characteristics: the bully, the head boy, the cricketer, the boy who brings in sex magazines, the small, rather intellectual boy that they pick on, Gecko. Speaking of the sex magazines, the first part of the film shares the adolescent boys’ preoccupation with and curiosity about sex.

The teachers are not always prominent, though we see the headmaster and a teacher who has had (allegedly) a mauling accident with a lion and gives sixers for the boys sneaking out for night swimming. But, the main teacher we meet is Mr Edery, ‘The Guv’, played by John Cleese. His first class on books is vintage Cleese, sarcastic, bombastic barbs. That is what we expected from him. However, as the film progresses, a more human side emerges, first comic, then quite tragic, something which Cleese communicates very well.

As the four terms go by, we follow John’s experiences (hopeless at sport), the reading that The Guv urges (Waitiing for Godot, Catch 22, The Lord of the Rings) and its effect on John, misbehaving with the peers, and his infatuation with Debbie, his parent’s neighbour’s daughter. She becomes his ideal, his fantasy. But, when he auditions for the school play, Oliver Twist, he also becomes infatuated with his leading lady, Amanda.

As the year goes by, John matures a little, is influenced by the wise suggestions of The Guv (while tackling The Guv on his red wine problem), experiences the friendship of Gecko and the sadness of his illness, moves to becoming a little more independent, has to face the situation with Debbie and Amanda, and is acclaimed by everyone for his performance as Oliver.

This is all to the credit of Troye Sivan, South African born, now living in Perth. He brings John to credible as well as interesting and often engaging life. A fine performance (including some singing as well).

Spud takes its place among the school stories like Dead Poets Society or The Emperor’s Club.


THIS MUST BE THE PLACE

Italy/Ireland, 2011,
Sean Penn, Frances Mc Dormand, Harry Dean Stanton, Eve Rewson,
Directed by Paolo Sorrentino.

Were there to be a competition for a list of most peculiar films, This Must be the Place would certainly find a place there. It is at times bizarre, comic, serious, deadly serious, enigmatic and never predictable. It also offers what must be Sean Penn’s most idiosyncratic performance.

If a reviewer simply said that the film is about an ageing, faded rock star who still dresses with make-up as in his heyday who goes to the United States from Dublin where he lives to find his family and then travels across America, with a touch of the Forrest Gump, on a mission of avenging his father and his concentration camp experiences, you would have a sketch synopsis – but a synopsis which does little value to the content and style of communication of the film.

And, if someone told you that they hated the film, you would not be surprised.

However, if you stay with the film and Sean Penn’s performance, then you will probably surrended, at least in part, to its strange story, its even more strange character, and the number of themes and issues that it raises. You may also surrender to the visual style, communicating the different parts of the States visited as well as the range of music, from quiet piano to rock and roll, but, especially to the songs of Talking Heads and more songs by David Byrne (who appears and sings the title song) and new songs by Byrne and Will Oldham.

Surprisingly, the Ecumenical Jury in Cannes 2011 awarded its prize to this film even though previous winning directors were represented (the Dardenne Brothers with The Kid with a Bike and Ari Kaurismaki with Le Havre, as well as The Tree of Life).

Sean Penn is Cheyenne, a pop star of twenty years earlier who lives in retirement in Dublin with his feisty wife of 35 years, played by Frances Mc Dormand. The point is made that Cheyenne has not really grown up. He has a tinny, rather whining voice, a hesitant manner even though he is particularly direct and honest in what he has to say. He seems to survive with some friends in Ireland and the good management of his wife. He is also friends with a mother whose son has disappeared and who sits at the window waiting for him.

Cheyenne, with his Gothic look, hairstyle and make-up, decides to go to his family in New York where his father, estranged for thirty years, has died. He learns about his father’s time in the concentration camp and a guard who had humiliated him whom he has tried to track down all his life. Cheyenne dcides to go searching, a road trip (with a businessman’s precious car which has a somewhat fiery end) which takes him to see an old teacher in Michigan, a single mother with a chubby son (who also sings the title song) and changes their lives with his kindness. He also meets a man in Utah (Harry Dean Stanton) who reveals that it was he who took out the patent for suitcases with wheels in 1988. (Having long thought that whoever this person was, he deserved a Nobel Prize for such an energy saving invention, I was in admiration of this scene which, like many in the film, is not essential to the plot but adds atmosphere and feeling.)

The moral moment is when he confronts the guard, now an old man, and hears about his father’s experience. What is he to do with the man?

The film is poetic, lots of symbolism and visual detail, that elicits all kinds of sense responses and emotions. It also offers much to reflect on, the pop music industry and history and the perils of celebrity, let alone broader issues of the United States in the 21st century and, still, the deep memories of the Holocaust.

This must be the place, especially in the lyrics of the song (which is played and sung in many versions throughout the film) is home.

The writer-director is Italian, Paolo Sorrentino, who has been a favourite of the art house and festival circuits, especially in Cannes. His creation of Cheyenne reminds us that he has created quite grotesque characters in his two previous films, L’Amico? di Famiglia (The Family Friend) where the central character is a completely unsympathetic and ugly mean tailor and money lender, and Il Divo, his portrait of once esteemed but mysteriously repellent Italian politician, Giulio Andreotti. Cheyenne is just as strange but much more likeable.



WOMAN IN THE FIFTH (LA FEMME DANS LE VIEME)

Ethan Hawke, Kristin Scott Thomas,
Directed by Pawel Pawelowski.

A reviewer-friend, after seeing this psychological drama, asked me to let him know what I thought of the ending of the film and what it meant. So, this request made me pay more attention all the way through, a conscious effort, more than usual. Just as well, because I was able to pick up some clues, visual and verbal, that occurred throughout the film. While I wouldn’t guarantee that I could write a detailed synopsis, I think the basic meaning was clear enough – until I heard some of the local reviewers puzzling over what happened.

If that sounds intriguing, this is your film. It has a brief running time and is directed by Polish, Pawel Pawelowski, who made two interesting small-budget features in England in the last ten years, The Last Resort and My Summer of Love.

The Fifth is one of the arrondisements of Paris where the film is set (based on a novel by American, Douglas Kennedy). We travel to several of these arrondissements. First to where US literature professor and novelist, Tom (Ethan Hawke), goes to find his estranged wife and his daughter, who promptly warns him off and calls the police. We don’t quite know the reasons for the hostility but his wife tells their daughter that her father has been in prison. Next, he travels by bus into a seedier neighbourhood, multi-ethnic as well, and finds that his suitcase and money have been stolen while he was asleep. Later, he goes more up-market to a literary party where he encounters Margit (the ever tantalisingly interesting Kristin Scott Thomas) and then to her apartment in the 5th.

In the meantime, he is offered a surveillance job by the owner of the dingy hotel where he is allowed to stay. Shady dealings here and some threats but we don’t quite know what. Tom also has a boorish neighbor – and his criticisms of him lead Tom to the police station.

If this sounds intriguing, then this is your film.

By this stage, we know enough about Tom to wonder about his life, his mental condition, his imaginary world, so that we can make sense of the final option that he makes after making sure his daughter (who seems to have temporarily disappeared) is safe. And, the question of who is this woman in the fifth still remains something of an enigma.

Created by: malone last modification: Monday 14 of May, 2012 [05:55:54 UTC] by malone


Language: en