SIGNIS REVIEWS MAY 2017
COUNTRY DOCTOR/ MEDECIN DU COMPAGNE
FATE OF THE FURIOUS, The
GOING IN STYLE
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOLUME 2
INNOCENTES, Les/ THE INNOCENTS
QUIET PASSION, A
ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE, The
Australia, 2016, 87 minutes, Colour.
Sara West, Samara Weaving, Benjamin Winspear, Felicity Price, Rebecca Massey.
Directed by Fin Edquist.
In many ways, despite the setting in the present, this is something of an old-fashioned melodrama, a drama about a psychotic character and the havoc that she can wreak.
Bad Girl was filmed in Western Australia, the countryside and a small town with the prospect of wealthy homebuyers attracted by modern architecture to move out of the city to live in comfort. At the opening of the film, we see the Anderson’s, Peter and Michelle(Benjamiin Winspear and Felicity Price), with their rebellious daughter, Amy (Sara West), sitting in the back of the car, sullen, only 17 but having had trouble with the police and institutions. The parents hope that she will be rehabilitated and bond with them as they move to the modern house that Peter has designed. Actually, things are not all that easy and he is becoming dependent on visitors from China to purchase his units.
Some of the neighbours a friendly, and a young girl, Chloe (Samara Weaving), turns up offering to clean the house as she says she is doing for other homes around the town. She is a very pretty girl but Peter Anderson is wary though Michelle reaches out to her.
A good part of the film shows the bonding between Amy and Chloe, especially as Amy intends to run away from home but those who are going with her fail to show up and a drunken Amy walks on the local bridge railings in the middle of the night, only to be rescued by Chloe. Chloe does do the jobs in the house, has long talks with Amy, especially after Amy runs away again and has commandeered the car owned by two young men and drives it recklessly. Amy reveals that she has been adopted, Peter and Michelle having adopted out their baby when they were studying and were too young to keep it. Chloe’s idea is that Amy should go on to a website and the people to her natural parents to make contact – which they seem to do.
Things are difficult at home, Amy and Chloe become firm friends, especially with a sexual attraction.
Review should probably end here, not taking the plot developments any further but leaving them to the audience as the details become more and more complicated, Chloe becoming more and more part of the household, seeming to become indispensable to Peter and Michelle while Amy seems to be more and more rebellious, disappearing from the house.
The plot becomes more melodramatic torch the end, with touches of blood and violence, keeping the audience fairly alert, some suspense and twists, with a happy ending come thing coming as something of a relief!
Not bad of its kind.
US, 2017, 100 minutes, Colour.
Dax Shepard, Michael Peña, Jessica Mc Namee, Adam Brody, Ryan Hansen, Kristin Bell, Jamie Bock, Vincent D’ Onofrio.
Directed by Dax Shepard.
There is no major reason for making your decision to see Chips. In fact, there is really no minor reason either.
Fans of the television series which ran from 1977 to 1983, 139 episodes, may find the skeleton of a plot and the characters they liked but an entirely different take, sometimes tongue in cheek, always suggestive, even vulgar. Contemporary audiences may get something of a kick out of the characters and their adventures but there are so many similar stories in film and television. Somebody remarked that younger audiences these days seem to get a thrill out of crass comedy so this might appeal here.
This is a police-partner, sometimes buddy, though odd couple, who team up, one going undercover in the California Police Highway enforcement to uncover corrupt police who are staging elaborate robberies, laundering money by buying artworks to get them to Mexico. There is violence and also a couple of murders.
The partners are Michael Peña as Ponch, being transferred to California from Florida where he has had some unfortunate incidents, partners being shot, and a predilection for ogling women and becoming involved with them. The other is Dax Shepard as Jon Baker, inept at most things, with a touch of hypochondria, hopeless at shooting but a star champion in riding a motorbike. He’s also rather obsessive in his interpretation of the law. Needless to say the obsessive tangles with the freewheeling causing all kinds of clashes and, again needless to say, their beginning to understand each other and help solve the crimes.
Vincent D’ Onofrio is the arch villain, the police chief behind the robberies, along with other members of the force – including some twists in revealing characters.
Despite the pressures and the efforts of the corrupt police, Ponch still has his roving eye and several of his female police workers are more than willing to be roved upon.
Jon Baker’s alienated wife is played by Kristin Bill, Dax Shepard’s wife in real life.
This version of Chips won’t enhance the popularity of the original television series and a further film, Chips 99. It is certainly not an enhancing kind of film.
THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS
US, 2017, 139 minutes, Colour.
Vin Diesel, Charlize Theron, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Jason Statham, Luke Evans, Tyrese Gibson, Chris ‘Ludicris’ Bridges, Kurt Russell, Nathalie Emanuel, Elsa Pataky, Scott Eastwood, Helen Mirren.
Directed by F. Gary Gray.
So, this is what world taste looks and sounds like! As it hurtles towards bringing in $1 billion in box office returns, this is what millions of people want to see in 2017.
In fact, this is the eighth film in the series of Fast and Furious action movies that began in 2001. And, of course, there is every reason that there will be a ninth.
One of the curious aspects of the series is that, except for one film, the star is someone who does not really exude charismatic screen presence, Vin Diesel. The charismatic one, Paul Walker, was killed in a car accident in 2013 but the subsequent films invoke his memory, as does this one, especially in its final scene and the naming of a baby, Brian, after him.
In the beginning, this was a series about cars, fast cars, drag races, American settings, overtones of the law with touches of lawlessness, and aspects of the drug world. Since then, the action has become international. In fact, this one opens in Cuba, a kind of Havana that Fidel Castro may never have dreamt of (or had, perhaps, thought that he had overthrown). Dom and Letty (Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez) are honeymooning in Havana when the screenplay offers the opportunity for a huge drag race (after plenty of ogling of the young women in the capital), a big opening because Dom is driving something of a jalopy with a fierce engine inserted and actually finishes the race driving in reverse!
It is this quality, rather than his personality, that is attractive to the villain of the film, a blonde dreadlocked, Cipher, Charlize Theron who threatens him (the audience does not quite know why only that he looks at a photo) and he has to betray his friends and work for her.
With the introduction of Cipher, as well as Mr Nobody of the CIA (Kurt Russell) and his assistant, Little Nobody (Scott Eastwood) and tracking down Hobbs at his daughter’s football match (Dwayne Johnson) and setting up action sequences in Berlin, the streets of New York City, and, eventually, snowclad northern Russia, the whole thing moves somewhat into James Bond territory. The rest of the crew get the call, Tej, Romano and Ramsay.
One of the complications is that Hobbs finishes up in prison but his escape is organised, along with his nemesis from the previous film, Jason Statham. And, by the end of the film, Jason Statham’s brother from the previous film, Luke Evans. And for good measure – very good measure – but only briefly who should turn up with as the brothers mum, Helen Mirren!
The New York chase with all its complications is an engaging set piece. But then, in Russia, there is a huge submarine, an explosive with a deadly time setting, Cipher in her plane, the whole gang on all kinds of vehicles driving through snow, submerging in the ice, the submarine ploughing through ice and snow – and the goodies achieving world peace! Also, of course, finally with the help of Dom.
Many will enjoy the scenes with Jason Statham and his goo-gooing with the baby!
(And, temptation not resisted, is it the Fury of the Fatuous!)
France, 2016, 104 minutes, Black and white/ Colour.
Paula Beer, Pierre Ninney, Ernst Stotzner, Marie Gruber, Johann von Bulow, Anton von Lucke, Cyrielle Clair.
Directed by François Ozon.
For over 20 years French director, François Ozon, has made a variety of films, mostly serious, a touch of the musical, some comedy. This is one of his most touching films.
In the early 1930s, director, Ernst Lubitsch made a war drama, Broken Lullaby. This forms the basis for Frantz.
The principal setting is a town in Germany, 1918-1919, the impact of the defeat of Germany in World War I, the memories of so many young men who were set eagerly to war and who died. We see a young woman walking through the town, going to the cemetery to put flowers on the memorial headstone for her dead fiance. The young woman, Anna, lives in her fiance’s house, his father a doctor, his mother a kindly woman, all of them grieving. The name of the dead son is Frantz, with pacifist views, an artist and a violinist.
Anna sees flowers at the gravestone and then a young visitor. She tracks him down at the local hotel and discovers that his name is Adrien. Adrien comes to the house, wanting to knock on the door but is unable. When Anna meets him, she encourages him to come but, when the doctor hears that he is French, he refuses at first to come to meet him. While the doctor his grieving, he is also bitter against the French, something fostered when he goes to the local tavern and has a drink with the other fathers of young men who have not returned.
He eventually does speak to Adrien who recounts to the family his memories of Frantz, times in Paris, Frantz’s interest in art, a painting by Manet which he cherished – although it is a painting of a suicide. Listening to Adrien has an effect on the doctor who comes to realise that it was the parents who were eager to send their children to war, but the adult generation supplied the weapons for the war, the weapons that were the occasion with their children’s deaths.
It should be noted that basically the film is in black-and-white but there are a variety of colour sequences, especially the flashbacks in Paris, and, more sombrely, for flashbacks to war in the trenches.
As Adrien becomes more involved with the family, he becomes uneasy and decides to leave.
What Adrien has told the family is not exactly exact and he wants to explain to Frantz’s parents his relationship with their son. Anna offers to do this but glosses over the truth, leaving the parents with Adrien’s happy memories and stories.
The parents are eager that Anna go to France to meet Adrien who has not responded to her letters – and finds that he comes from a wealthy family, is able to track him down at his mother’s estate, realising that she has developed affections for Adrien. She is helped in her commitment by going to confession to a local priest who encourages her not to tell the truth to the parents.
Ozon is able to involve his audience very emotionally in the situations, with the characters, compassion for the parents, especially for the doctor who comes to realise the enormity of a country sending its sons to war and to their deaths, to Anna and her feelings, to Adrien and his wanting to visit the family – and, as with so many stories from France ln the war, there is not an entirely happy ending.
UK, 2016, 91 minutes, Colour.
Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, Brie Larson, Sam Riley, Noah Taylor, Jack Reynor, Enzo Cilenti, Babou Ceesay.
Directed by Ben Wheatley.
If ever there was a film with a free-for-all shootout, a long free fire, then this is that film.
Someone, with a penchant for rhetoric, instead of asking “why?” used to ask “to what purpose?”. This particular question arises often during the film? Why? To what purpose?
The director has a strong reputation for small budget films with intense characters and has a different perspective on violence: Kill List, Sightseers, High Rise. There is no doubting his skills as a director, working with his wife, Amy Jump, on screenplay as well is with editing. All in all, the film has a great many admirers, critics, fans of offbeat cinema, and it is a piece of bravura filmmaking.
The film runs for only 90 minutes but, with so much of the action taking up in the incessant shooting, it often seems a long 90 minutes.
The director has assembled a very strong cast. First of all there are the Americans (the setting is said to be Boston 1978) who are the arms dealers. Over them all is a quietly suave Ord (Armie Hammer with a beard and penchant for marijuana) who has to keep in control the bizarre and and chattering dealer, Vern (Sharlto Copley with his strikingly disturbing South African accent). They have two drivers, Gordon and Harry (Noah Taylor and Jack Reynor). Then there are the buyers, with Frank the go-between (Michael Smiley), a man with a machine to count the transaction money (Babou Ceesay) and the only woman in the deal, Justine (Brie Larson who won the Oscar as Best Actress for Room). They also have two drivers, Stevo and Bernie (Sam Riley in possibly the most intense performance amongst other intense performances, and Enzo Cilenti).
Stevo has been bashed the night before and is complaining – only to find as the deal is drawing to a close, the money counted, the crates lifted, that Harry recognises him as having attacked his sister leading to the fight and the bashing. Harry pulls a gun, fires at Stevo – and for the duration we have everybody taking cover, everybody firing, some woundings, some attempted bargaining, the case with the money out there in the open, and, surprisingly, two outsiders coming into the warehouse with rifles.
While there are many eventual casualties, everybody firing the shots tends either to miss or to wound rather than to kill – prolonging the free fire.
The only concession to audiences who might not like violence is the playing of several John Denver songs!
The dramatic question, of course is, who will survive and, although this is a spoiler, only one does. Who?
GOING IN STYLE
US, 2017, 97 minutes, Colour.
Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Alan Arkin, Ann- Margret, Matt Dillon, Christopher Lloyd, Joey King, Peter Serafinowicz, John Ortiz, Siobhan Fallon Hogan.
Directed by Zack Graf.
As Going in Style was released, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman discussed the potential audience in a radio interview. They quickly pointed out that this was a film for an older audience – and that film makers had really discovered in recent years that there was an eager older audience, especially after the success of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. They also remarked that this older audience was often sick and tired of just sitting in front of the television and were eager to go out to see a film but there were not so many that they really wanted to see.
Robert Redford was 80 in 16. In 2017, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Vanessa Redgrave, Jane Fonda all turn 80. As regards Going In Style, Michael Caine was born in 1933, Alan Arkin in 1934 and Morgan Freeman amongst those turning 80 in 2017. Plenty of older star power around, just mentioning in passing Judi Dench and Maggie Smith.
In fact, the first version of Going In Style, which was released in 1979, starred George Burns who was 83, Art Carney who was merely 61 and dramatic teacher, Lee Strasberg, 78. But, 80 is not what it used to be either for the actors or for the audience. There are a lot of 80-year-olds happy to go out to see the film!
Actually, this is a bank robbery film. Early in the piece, Michael Caine’s Joe is having a grim talk with his financial advisor because he is receiving notices that his home will be reclaimed by the bank when there is an expert robbery, executed by masked men and carried out within three minutes and an effective escape. But that does eventually give Joe some ideas, especially when he and Willie (Morgan Freeman) and Albert (Alan Arkin) go to their factory and find that production is going to foreign countries and not only that but the pension scheme has collapsed. What else is an elderly person to do but rob a bank!
They make meticulous preparation, but have to do a fair number of rehearsals to get their movements agile and ready for a successful under three minutes robbery. They have connections who give them advice, some fake guns and blanks, and make the pledge that they will only take the money that they would have accrued in pensions if they were to live for several years, anything over for charity.
Joe has a daughter and granddaughter living at home and doesn’t want to lose his house. Willie and Albert board together and, unknown to the others, Willie has tumours. Albert has the touch of the pessimist but certainly is attracted by the woman at the local store, played by Ann- Margret (only 75!).
The investigator for the original robbery is played by Matt Dillon, obviously the younger lead in the film (though 52 at time of filming). He is conscientious, has his suspicions, questions the suspects, follows them – but, a very entertaining part of the film is the dramatising of their alibis, very well thought out, the use of masks, playing to video surveillance and deceiving it. The three belong to a local club where they go to have their dinners, a charity club does get involved in charity work and the days of the fair is on is a cover for the robbery. Christopher Lloyd (78) plays the rather doddery manager. And the club is the recipient of a hefty donation – and the flirtatious waitress at the diner, who does give them some pie gratis when they haven’t the ability to pay, also ruled receives a substantial tip.
And, at the end, wedding bells for Albert and his girlfriend, and everybody gathered in dancing, definitely going in style. Nothing particularly great about the film but an entertainment for its intended audience.
Romania, 2016, 127 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Christian Mungiu.
Christian Mungiu is one of the most distinguished of the new wave of Romanian directors in the first decades of the 21st century. His 4 weeks, 3 months, 2 days won the main prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007. He followed this with his collection of short stories, Tales from the Golden Age and then the film about exorcism in Romanian Orthodox situation in Beyond the Hills.
This time he goes to a country town in Romania, showing the surfaces of families and the depths within the families, a father who has high expectations of his daughter and her scholarship to England, the daughter interested in study but more in a relationship, the father and his relationship with his emotionally fragile wife and his conducting an affair.
While all this can be covered by the seeming respectability, when the difficulties surface, they have all kinds of repercussions for the people concerned.
This is a very strong drama, very well written and well performed – and, while it is Romanian in its focus, it has universal themes.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOLUME 2
US, 2017, 136 minutes, Colour.
Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillen, Pom Klementieff, Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan.
Directed by James Gunn.
To write a review of this adventure for the numerous fans would be a waste of energy. They thrilled to the first film, most are very happy with the second. Rather, this is a review for those who are not fans of the Guardians of the Galaxy or who do not understand who they are and what they are about.
This is material for a children’s audience and, probably especially, for adult children who delight in the characters, the special effects and action, the jokey repartee, the blend of the serious and the comic. These films are, via writer and director James Gunn who obviously is enjoying himself with the stories, the outlandish aspects of the characters and their adventures, playing with all the special effects, as even some of the more serious reviewers have said; a lot of fun for the fans.
The origins of the film are in Marvel comics (and creator, Stan Lee, has a cameo as usual, and reappears at the very, very end after all the credits). Speaking of credits, there are quite a number of inserts into the final credits with all the characters – and promise of adventures to come.
In the first film we saw the team of Guardians putting some order into the universe. On paper, they seem the least likely of Galaxy guardianship. Peter Quill, Chris Pratt, does seem to be some kind of superhero, half human and half galactic, with a sense of ironic humour. Then there is the green-coloured Gamora, Zoe Saldana (changing from her blue in Avatar), something of a superhero type, joining Peter in action, attracted to him but suppressing any desire to express this, labelling it as “unspoken”. Drax, Dave Bautista, is a giant -like hero, not always quick on the uptake, but generous in going into action.
One of the stars of the show is Rocket, rather fox-like, but mistaken for all kinds of other animals, which he rather resents. He is voiced by Bradley Cooper. His cheeky, something of a rogue, stealing batteries from a high priestess at the opening, rather flexible in his attitude towards the truth, not above slinging off at everyone. Then there is the mini-material doll, Groot, with all the limitations of small size, childlikeness, able to make a few sounds rather than words (although Vin Diesel is credited as the voice of Groot and Diesel non-fans will think that Groot is much more lively and personable than any of Diesel’s screen characters, including all the Fast and Furious films). Sylvester Stallone, oh. Though he is better at the end and during the final credits.
For the first half of the film, older audiences may wonder why they are sitting there and whether they should leave all the shenanigans to the younger audience. However, there are intimations of father-son clashes. Defying belief, Kurt Russell is made up near the opening as a young man in the 1980s, but later, we see him as he more ordinarily is, although he is Ego, with superhuman powers, his own planet, seeking a son who has powers like his – finding them in Peter Quill. Actually, Kurt Russell is pretty good in the role of Ego.
All is not as it seems, Peter has been brought up by another rogue of the planets, Yondu, quite a substantial role for character actor, Michael Rooker. He turns out to be the true father-figure who is prepared to sacrifice himself for his son.
Another of the clashes is the sister-sister struggle between Gamora and Nebula. And, with more clashes, there is a gold-plated priestess with her own space vehicle and attendants, Ayesha, played by Elizabeth Debicki.
This may not explain Guardians of the Galaxy or its appeal but it indicates something of how the film is made and how it comes across. And early box office results indicate that fans all around the world love it.
France, 2016, 116 minutes, Colour.
Lou de Laage, Agata Buzek, Agata, Kulesza, Vincent Macaigne, Joanna Kulig.
Directed by Anne Fontaine.
It is very significant that 2016 saw two films which explored Catholic themes in a profound way. There was Martin Scorsese’s Silence, the story of the Jesuits in Japan in the 17th century and the fidelity of the laity, even to martyrdom, as well as issues of challenges to faith. There was also Les Innocentes, directed by Anne Fontaine, the harrowing story of a convent of Polish sisters who were abused and raped by invading Russian soldiers during World War II and have to deal with the aftermath in terms of location and faith.
Les Innocentes is a French/Polish production, a French director and two inch actors but production and the rest of the cast will Polish. This is a stark picture of Poland and the Polish countryside in the post-war winter of 1945.
An interesting comparison is the 2014 Oscar-winner for Best Foreign Language film, Ida, a story about a Polish nun, a child during the war, her adoption and the discovery of her Jewish background and her later having to deal with this in terms of vocation.
Silence and Les Innocentes are powerful reminders of Catholic sensibilities, Catholic sensitivities and the depth of Catholic themes.
Audiences who remember the 1959 film, The Nuns’ Story, will remember the similarities in the life of the nuns in the convent, contemplative, enclosed, austere, penitential, an emphasis on obedience, of the vows, the dominating role of the superior. This kind of religious life is only memory for older audiences, a surprise for younger audiences – although there are pockets of religious communities like this around the world today. The stone convent looks grim, the main action takes place in winter, the audience is taken into the chapel frequently for the chanting of the Office, to the corridors, the cells, the refectory. It is interesting to remember that in exactly 20 years, the sessions of the Second Vatican Council would be completed and changes in convent life were in the offing.
Of key importance for the audience is the impact of the rape story, the horror for innocent women, nuns, virgins, with the physical experience of the assault, with the psychological impact of the violation. The nuns are reticent about their condition, embarrassed, some mystified by their experience, a sense of shame, a sense of self-blame, the concealing of pregnancy beneath ample habits, moral issues with which the sisters have to cope.
Of significance is the perspective of the superior, wanting to keep the reputation of the convent respectable, concealing what had happened.
One of the sisters leaves the convent to find some medical help, from the French doctors and nurses present in the Polish village to tend to French wounded before they are repatriated. The focus is on a French nurse (and the film based on a memoir of these events before she died, prematurely, in 1946). She has a Communist background and so the convent tends to be alien territory. As portrayed by Lou de Laage, she is a fine woman, a volunteer, a woman of concern and compassion, engaging with the liaison Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) who speaks French and becomes more and more frank in her discussions with the nurse.
She learns a great deal of medical skills as well as compassion from the nurse and begins to confide in her, even more sympathetic with the sisters when she herself is attacked and threatened by a Russian convoy. She enlists the help of the Red Cross doctor who is Jewish, his family killed in Auschwitz and who interprets the reaction of the superior as anti-Semitic. Nevertheless, he assists with the births.
As the time comes to give birth, many of the sisters are fearful, ashamed, prudish and ignorant. Each of the sisters reacts in her own way, some avoiding the reality, others conscious of their becoming mothers. (In later decades, issues of the appropriateness of abortion in such circumstances were raised in moral and theological discussions. In the last 20 years there have also been quite a number of films about women who were raped in the Balkan wars of the 1990s, questions of abortion, issues of raising the children and the consequences for the children and their origins and legitimacy in Balkan society)
It is important to note that the nuns have to deal with situations themselves, the chaplain not being present, no explanation given but the audience presumes his arrest or his death. These are women’s issues and are dealt with by women assisted by the doctor.
It is the nurse herself who comes up with a solution which is positive for the sisters as mothers and for the local orphans who have been seen playing in and wandering the streets.
In fact, this is a film of faith but, ultimately of hope and charity, symbolised by a charming group photo of the sisters, the children, and the visitors who have been able to come, at last, for the profession of vows by the novices.
The experience of Les Innocentes (the innocents being the sisters as well as the babies) is, at times, emotionally harrowing, always morally challenging, probing the meaning of innocence suffering and the place and role of God, of faith.
MEDECIN DE COMPAGNE/ COUNTRY DOCTOR
France, 2016, 102 minutes, Colour.
Francois Cluzet, Marianne Denicourt.
Directed by Thomas Lilti.
Stories about country doctors and country practices have been very popular on film and, especially, television series. Those for whom the idea of a country doctor and his country practice seems appealing will find a lot to like in this French version.
There is a sobering moment right at the beginning. The country doctor, played by popular and versatile French actor François Cluzet, is something of a loner, his wife having left him, his son living in the city. He goes to see a doctor friend and the diagnosis is not good. The friend urges him to ease off from the pressures of his work.
Of course, he does not.
Audiences who feel that there is an authentic atmosphere about this film and its characters, the various visits, the treatments, then this is because the writer-director, Thomas Lilti, was actually a country doctor himself before he began making films for a living.
His practice is fairly wide-ranging and we soon see glimpses of several of his patients, his kindly dealing with an old man who finds it difficult to dress, a friend involved on a building site… Somehow or other, his continuing with his practice seems rather to invigorate him.
His friend sends along a doctor assistant, a woman in her 40s who has spent some time being a nurse but has studied medicine and has a good sense of how to deal with people – except that the doctor sits in on his assistant’s interviews, is rather critical, is not particularly gracious or helpful. But, life goes on.
One night he is called out to the friend on the building site who has had a severe accident. The doctor himself stumbles and falls in the dark and needs x-rays for his shoulder, something which his assistant sees but does not let him know she is aware of his condition. They continue with their work.
There are some moments of relaxation, especially a country dance, some very enthusiastic line dancing. There are also local committees who are trying to assess improvements to medical services. And the doctor himself organises a group to take care of the old man whom he has abducted from the hospital for personal home care.
Familiar material, more or less, but with the strength of the performers and the humanity of the anecdotal stories as well as the challenge to the doctor about his health, his life, some toning down of his unfriendliness and having regards for his assistant, this is an interesting and enjoyable film.
Chile, 2016, 106 minutes, Colour.
Luis Gneccho, Gael Garcia Bernal, Mercedes Moran.
Directed by Pablo Larain.
For a Chilean audience this would be a significant film. Pablo Neruda, Nobel Prize winner for literature in 1971, was the nation’s significant literary personality, was a politician, had ambassadorial duties, but also had a lifelong commitment to the Communist Party and suffered periods of being hunted and exiled.
For a worldwide audience, with, perhaps, limited knowledge about Pablo Neruda, a googling of his name, seeing the biography in Wikipedia, would be a fruitful exercise.
The film is directed by Pablo Larain who is emerging as one of Chile’s most significant directors, Tony Manero, The Club, No, Jackie. It is interesting to note that his 2013 drama, No, focused on the 1988 election which challenged the authority of General Pinochet. At one moment in this film, showing the prisons and the political prisoners in 1948, the man in charge of the camp is Pinochet.
The action of this film takes place in 1948, corresponding to the time when Neruda (Luis Gneccho) had been a successful Communist Senator in the Parliament, had been critical of the US, pro the Soviet Union with and Communist principles, but was criticised by fellow senators and then exiled by the President and hunted, a number of escapes from the police, moving from place to place with the help of Communist security guards and drivers, ultimately escaping to Argentina across the Andes.
While the film seems to play like a historical narrative, establishing the character of Neruda, his politics, his staunch Communist stances and sympathetic approach to ordinary people and workers, his marriage to his French mentor, Delia, and her accompanying him in hiding, the fact that he was also a womaniser, but, above all, in the mind of the Chilean people, he was a great poet.
However, the screenplay is something of a fantasy, a blend of fiction and reality. The voice-over narrative is that of the police officer in charge of the pursuit, Oscar Peluchennau (Gael Garcia Bernal), whose mother was a prostitute and whose putative father was the establisher of a strong police force. Oscar has a commission from the authorities to hunt down Neruda, searching from house to house, place to place, almost catching up with him, Neruda leaving copies of detective stories with messages for him.
In fact, this is a fictitious character, giving a symbolic meaning to the hunted and the hunter. Neruda seems to flirt with being caught, going out against the wishes of his minders, leaving the messages for Oscar. There is a significant scene in a brothel, where a transgender prostitute sings, encourages Neruda to recite his poems, and pledges his loyalty to Neruda while interrogated by Oscar.
Ultimately, there is a confrontation in Argentina, Neruda escaping by car, then on horseback, into the snow. Oscar’s motorbike breaks down, he also rides a horse into the snow for an ultimate confrontation with Neruda.
For a non-Chilean audience, the narrative and the fiction are interesting but the audience still might feel somewhat detached from the situations and Neruda’s character. For a Chilean audience, the film is an exploration of a significant historical era, the eventual emergence of Allende as president, with the support of Neruda, followed by Allende’s assassination and the oppression of General Pinochet.
France, 2015, 105 minutes, Colour.
Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Sigrid Bouaziz, Anders Danielson Lie, Ty Olwin, Nora von Waldstatten.
Directed by Olivier Assayas.
Strongly divided opinions about this one. It was greeted by boos at the critics’ screening at the Cannes film Festival, but then it did win the Best Director award for Olivier Assayas and has received warm reviews.
Kristin Stewart, who had previously worked successfully with Assayas in Clouds of Sils Maria, is Maureen, the personal shopper of the title. She works for a temperamental actress, at her beck and call, but seemingly willing to do this work. There are quite a number of sequences where she goes to shops to pick up a range of clothes for her employer – and revealing a growing interest in the clothes and the possibilities of trying them on, of wearing them.
But, this is not the main focus of the film. she has some psychic powers, the sense of the presence of powers from the beyond, the possibility of ghosts. We see her spending the night in a house trying to get a sense of whether there are mysterious persons present – which brings her in contact with a number of celebrities who are interested in her powers. There is also a murder.
While Maureen herself has something of a personal life and relationships, she spends a lot of her time alone, going on trips, even to London, for personal shopping. Gradually, there are eerie aspects of her life, sensing of other people, much of it centring on the experience of the death of her brother – and something of his restlessness in the afterlife.
In the meantime, she goes to visit her boyfriend who is working in Morocco in IT.
Over the running time, so much of film action time is taken up with people on the phone. In this film, Maureen spends an inordinate amount of time with her smart phone, receiving mysterious texts, puzzling over them, communicating by text, the camera often in close-up on the messages, on the texts. This seems to be a very frustrating way of taking up film time, communicating message, and having the central character so dependent on text.
And, by the end, with the beyond-this-world suggestions, many who are sceptical audience will find these developments too much to take, not quite credible – which makes the booing at the Cannes Film Festival quite understandable.
A QUIET PASSION
UK, 2016, 125 minutes, Colour.
Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Duncan Duff, Keith Carradine, Jodhi May, Joanna Bacon, Catherine Bailey, Emma Bell, Annette Badland.
Directed by Terence Davies.
This is a portrait of the 19th century American poet, Emily Dickinson.
It is a film written and directed by Terence Davies, who made an impression in the past with his classic Distant Voices, Still Lives in 1988 as well as The Long Day Closes in 1992. Davies also made a screen version of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth and a very telling remake of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea.
Davies might be called a fastidious director, great attention to detail, a great sensitivity to human feelings, and setting them within a historic and cultural context. A Quiet Passion is set between the 1840s and the 1880s and Davies re-creates the period, its look, its feel, costumes and decor, sensibilities meticulously. The period covers the lives of very proper Bostonians with a Protestant and evangelical religious outlook, the challenge of the Civil War, the unsettled aftermath. It also covers the media of the period, the newspapers and magazines, especially for outlets for the publication of poetry.
The film opens with Emily asserting herself at the religious school for young ladies, some in the group choosing to be women of faith and Christianity, others choosing to be women of faith but not committed to Christianity, with Edith standing in the middle, her own woman, defying the threats of hell from the prim women in charge. She feels it necessary that her family come to rescue her, her patrician father and her younger sister and brother. She returns to their quiet, comfortable and settled life in Boston. She is skilled in writing poetry but it is not the done thing for young women to be published – especially when they go to a concert and her father disapproves exceedingly of a woman singing in public. Despite the objections of her aunt, the father does make contact with an editor and a problem is published.
Externally, nothing very much happens in Emily Dickinson’s life, though there is an intensity in her inner life. She is played, very effectively, as a traditional spinster by Cynthia Nixon (a long way away from Sex and the City). Her sister is played by Jennifer Ehle, one of those smiling, kind and gentle performances at which Jennifer Ehle is expert. The patriarchal father is played by Keith Carradine.
Edith and her sister stay at home, with some views on slavery and the Civil War, religious in outlook but Edith, especially, refusing her father’s invitation to actually go to church. Their mother is loving but is sickly and dies.
Edith is self-contained, has no desire to marry, is happy and secure in her home life, with some women friends who pass in and out of her life. There is quite a moral crisis when she finds that her brother is unfaithful to his wife with whom Edith is friendly, sharing books and other matters of taste. She emerges as quite intolerant, unforgiving, despite efforts by her sister and brother to mollify her outlook – and she does, at times, admit that she can be far too harsh.
As she grows older, she becomes unwell – and the scenes of her illness and treatment are quite forthright.
On paper, it might be said that the life of Emily Dickinson is not a subject for a feature film. Rather, it might have been effective as a piece of theatre. As it is, it is a film of words with many of the Emily Dickinson’s problems being recited by Cynthia Nixon – although, poems which require more than one reading to grasp their meaning and tone, something not possible with the film. It is a film of tableaux. To that extent, A Quiet Passion is quite theatrical but, with Davies’ sensitivity and sensibility, it does offer an audience an opportunity to get to know and appreciate Emily Dickinson.
France, 2016, 99 minutes, Colour.
Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella, Laurent Lucas, Joanna Preiss, Bouli Lanners, Marion Vernoux.
Directed by Julia Ducournau.
The Australian distributors of this film are Monster Pictures. And, indeed, some of the characters are monstrous in their behaviour but not in the world of fantasy but in the real world.
The basic narrative is fairly straightforward: the younger daughter of a family goes to begin her veterinary studies and is immediately forced into the hazing that goes on for many days in “Rush Week”, a period of humiliations and ultra-raucous behaviour (showing extreme amount of controlling peer group pressure). She is a vegetarian and is forced to eat a piece of raw rapid liver – with dire consequences, starting with shingles, her feeling unwell, and then developing an appetite which is certainly not vegetarian. The people involved with this changing her are her older sister, also studying to be a vet, and her gay friend.
This is a first film by young French director, Julia Ducournau, was obviously interested in psychological allegory with more than a touch of horror, with quite an emphasis on blood and gore. That is, in itself, a warning for those who have different tastes (actually that serves as a pun on the themes of the film).
Searching around for her to describe the allegory, the following description came up: the emergence from the vegetarian of a subconscious increasingly voracious carnivorous compensation. This means that the film is definitely a psychological drama with effects that are both psycho and somatic.
Justine, the younger sister, resists the emergence from the subconscious, is exceedingly puzzled by it, shocked at the various episodes with herself and her sister, and not dealing with them well at all. Another drive that emerges is the sexual.
Just as we might be puzzling about the final episodes, there is a vivid reminder that the influences on a person’s life both nature and nurture, and that it is wise to find out what has been inherited from parents.
In recent years, the French have made a number of films like this, psychological dramas but moving into areas that remind audiences of the drives that are seen in vampire, zombie and living dead films.
US, 2017, 87 minutes, Colour.
Anna Kendrick, Lisa Kudrow, Craig Robinson, Tony Revolori, Margo Martindale, Stephen Merchant, June Squibb, Wyatt Russell.
Directed by Jeffrey Blitz.
There won’t be any great indent in your life, any emptiness, if you don’t manage to see Table 19. On the other hand, if you do happen to see it, it is a reasonable enough 90 minutes looking at human nature and many of its troubles.
The action of the film takes place mainly over one day, a wedding. We are introduced to Eloise (Anna Kendrick) debating over whether she will accept the invitation to the wedding: yes, no, attempting to burn the invitation, changing her mind and going. We assume that there is some kind of romantic barrier hindering her going to the wedding.
In fact, she has broken off her relationship with the Best Man, Teddy (Wyatt Russell) who was taken up with an old and now new girlfriend. Eloise has helped with the table placements but, after the breakup, she has withdrawn as maid of honour and is now at the outpost table, 19.
We are shown the other guests at this table receiving their invitations, debating whether to go or not. The most eager is the very elderly former nanny, June Squibb (so good in the film, Nebraska), an awkward young man preoccupied with sexual matters (Tony Revolori, so good in The Grand Budapest Hotel), the owners of a diner whose rather long marriage has become rather brittle (Lisa Kudrow and Craig Robinson) and, finally, a very awkward and gawky guest, the very tall Stephen Merchant (The Office).
There are many awkward moments at the table, very many awkward moments. Eloise absents herself at times, arguing with Teddy, dancing with a good-looking seeming-guest (Australian Tom Cocquerell, accent and all) who, in fact, it is rather two-timing. Things come to a head when Eloise is upset, the nanny quickly discerning that she is pregnant, and there is an upset to the wedding cake with them all repairing to the nanny’s room, some pot, some mutual help. They then go for a walk, an opportunity for everybody to have a good talk and attempt to sort things out.
Problems, problems. On the whole, we probably don’t mind being in the company of these characters with their eccentricities and hope that things will turn out for them.
UK, 2016, 117 minutes, Colour.
Gemma Atherton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nigh, Jack Huston, Paul Ritter, Rachel Sterling, Richard E. Grant, Henry Goodman, Jake Lacey, Eddie Marsan, Jeremy Irons, Lily Knight, Francesca Knight.
Directed by Lone Scherfig.
This is the kind of British entertainment that suggests itself for a collection of The Best of Britain.
While it has been made in the present, and some of the dialogue is more 21st-century than the dialogue that appeared in the films of 1940 to 1941, in fact, this is a film about films and filmmaking in that particular war period.
It is very British in tone, characters, situations, some underplayed interactions, low-key humour – which does worry the Ministry for War and the Ministry for Information at the time because they want the film that they are making to make an impact on American audiences so that America will consider entering World War II and not just think that Britain has caved in after the Battle of Britain. The ending that was originally intended for the film the Brits are making gets feedback from the American distributors – not enough oomph!
Which is probably how Australians will like Their Finest, especially older cinemagoers who would seem to be the intended audience.
The central character is a young woman from Wales, Catrin, a very good starring role for Gemma Arterton. Catrin has come to London from Wales with her artist husband, Jack Huston, who has been wounded in the Spanish Civil War and so has to serve as an air raid warden. She thinks she is going for a job as secretary but, as she presents herself, especially to a committee who are making propaganda films (with scenes of audiences laughing at the kind of British rah-rah film of the time), she makes a good impression and is hired as a screenwriter, first of all for little fillers which are morale boosters shown between the supporting feature and the main feature.
The Ministries are after stories which are authentic and optimistic. Catrin goes to investigate a Dunkirk story, twins, Rose and Lily, who take their alcoholic father’s boat, sail across to the French coast to help with the rescue of the British soldiers at Dunkirk. Well, it didn’t quite happen like that in fact, but the story seems to be too good to pass up and so Catrin, her co-writers, especially the sardonic Buckley (Sam Claflin) who thinks that Catrin can do the ‘soppy stuff’ (the dialogue for the women), begin to work on writing the screenplay.
The film is very interesting showing the writers, their whiteboard, the stickers with key characters and events, the spaces between, the way that they invent more material to flesh out the story, sometimes inventive, sometimes hackneyed, always with an eye on what the Ministries were expecting (they react at the story of a boat breaking down which would denigrate British shipbuilding), on the effect on the audience, on the box office and, when they are forced, to introduce an American character and try to work out how on earth he was a Dunkirk.
There are many scenes of the filming, on the Devon coast and later in the studio. Key to all of this is a self-important actor, played with his usual sardonic aplomb by Bill Nighy, who expects to be the hero, that finds that he is to be the alcoholic uncle Frank. Eventually, he is charmed by Catrin, and relies on her completely for his character, not wanting any dialogue except hers. He also has an agent, Eddie Marsan, who is killed in a raid and he has to deal with the agent’s sister, a haughty Helen McCrory?.
At times one can imagine the screenplay meetings about scenes for this film, especially in terms of Catrin and her husband, her breaking down the hostility of Buckley, and where this might lead. Actually, it does not lead in the directions that we might have been anticipating.
Scenes of the Blitz, the bombings, taking refuge in the Tube, lots of ordinary London people in the streets, the air raid wardens, the technical crew and the difficulties of making a film during wartime – and, ultimately, Catrin going to see the film with an ordinary audience who respond perfectly, laughs, fears, anticipation, tears, enthusiastic morale.
Interestingly, the film was directed by Lone Scherfig, a Danish director who has made a number of films in the UK including Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself and An Education.
UK/India, 2017, 106 minutes, Colour.
Hugh Bonneville, Gillian Anderson, Michael Gambon, Manish Dayal, Huma Quereshi, David Heyman, Om Puri, Simon Callow.
Directed by Gurinda Chanda.
Where is the Viceroy’s House? It is in Delhi, and it is 1947, the year for Britain’s solving its role in India’s move for independence, which led to Partition into India and Pakistan, Hindu and Muslim.
For those interested in British history, especially in India, this is a film which recreates the atmosphere and dramatises the personalities and events of the time. The viceroy is Lord Mountbatten, who had achieved significantly during World War II in Burma. He is accompanied by his wife, Lady Edwina Mountbatten.
The task that Mountbatten was given by the British Parliament was to move India towards the independence that it for and which had been fostered by Mahatma Gandhi. This independence was not to be an easy task because of Hindu traditions, of the Muslim traditions, the cultural and religious clashes, in 1947 turning into local massacres, uprisings and a general sense of unease. Hindus were led by Nehru and the Muslims by Jinna. It was very difficult times to arrange meetings between leaders.
As a way of bringing the audience into the thinking of the issues, there is a kind of Romeo and Juliet story underlying the political activity. Jeet (Manish Daval) is a Hindu who has worked in prisons but is now promoted as a personal servant to the Viceroy. Also promoted in the Viceroy’s House is a young Muslim woman, Aalia (Huma Quereshi). Jeet is in love with her since he looked after her father in prison. She has been promised to someone else and it would seem that their love has no future.
Hugh Bonneville portrays Mountbatten, an excellent choice, bringing dignity and status as well as some compassion to the role trying with his wife (Gillian Anderson) to move amongst the people, meeting with the governors, the political leaders, facing the reality of a low Partition for many, including Gandhi, are against it.
An expert, who had actually never visited in, is called in to determine the borders between India and Pakistan, as well as establishing East Pakistan, later Bangladesh. He is played by Simon Callow. One of the main advisors to the Viceroy Is General Ismay (Michael Gambon), who eventually reveals to the border expert that there had been a long plan for Partition, sponsored by Winston Churchill, no longer Prime Minister, a plan that had not been shown to Mountbatten who had reported well to the Parliament which decreed that the solution was to be named after him.
In the meantime, the romance between the two young people does blossoms, the girl’s father (Om Puri) appreciates Jeet. At the same time, as the riots and massacres break out, the intense differences are manifest amongst the clashing servants who eventually, when Partition is to have to make a decision whether they want to stay in Pakistan or in India. This leads to an enormous migration throughout the subcontinent.
Audiences interested in British politics in 1947 should see a United Kingdom, the story of the King of Bechuanaland and and his marrying an English woman and the consequent racial difficulties and decisions of the British Parliament under Atlee under Churchill to preserve links with South Africa where apartheid was officially emerging. During the final credits, there is a note that the director’s grandmother was caught up in the searches at the time of Partition so that there is great personal investment in the film as a memoir.
Beautifully photographed, an excellent re-creation of the period, a very watchable political and social film.
THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE
Czech Republic/UK/US, 2017, 127 minutes, Colour.
Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Bruhl.
Directed by Niki Caro.
A film about Warsaw, 1939 to 1946, a film about the Jews in the ghetto, a film about gentiles and their hiding the Jews in their homes and helping them to escape. In many ways, the story of Anne Frank and her diary became the archetypal story of the concealment of the Jews. Schindler’s List was also an archetypal story on gentiles saving the Jews. At the end of that film, Oskar Schindler is honoured in Jerusalem as being a righteous citizen. At the end of The Zookeeper’s Wife, we learn that Antonina and Jan Zabinski were also honoured honoured in this way.
It is significant for the style and impact of the film that it is based on the work of women, Diane Ackerman as the author of the bestselling story, Angela Workman as the writer of the screenplay and Niki Caro as the director. There are many touching scenes in the film, and frequent tenderness in the treatment of the characters and their hardships.
Jessica Chastain has emerged as a significant actress in recent years and contributes another fine performance. She is Antonina, who works in the Warsaw zoo with her husband, Jan (Jan Heldenbergh). They have a young son. The range of animals in the zoo is displayed during the opening credits and there are many sequences with the animals, the difficult birth of a baby elephant, a pet cub in the house, a young camel running through the zoo with Antonina as she rides her bike.
This, course, makes the German invasion of Poland and the bombing of the zoo all the more harrowing, the frightening noises for the animals, the destruction of their precincts, their running wild, their deaths.
While the summer of 1939 was quite sunny in Warsaw, everything changed on September 1 with Hitler’s invasion of Poland.
The citizens were bewildered, the Zabinski family having to deal with how they could cope with the destruction of the zoo – and coming up with an ingenious solution to present to the Germans, especially to the world-renowned zoologist, Heck (Daniel Bruhl) who has been friendly with the family but is now Hitler’s zoologist. The suggestion is that the plant of the zoo be used as a pig farm to provide food for the German soldiers – using the garbage from the ghetto to feed the pigs and a cover, in the truck under the garbage, for the rescuing of many Jews and negotiating their escape while others continued to live in the zoo residence for years.
While these stories have been seen frequently over the many decades, it is important to keep the memories alive, to appreciate the plight of the Jews, in the hardships of the ghetto with people hungry and dying in the streets, the brutality of the German soldiers (even to the rape of a young girl), the strict silences to be observed by those hiding in the house so they would not be discovered during the day, getting some moments in the early hours of the morning for getting out into the air.
While Antonina covers everything at home, Jan drives the truck and is instrumental in the escapes, especially when the man in charge of the ghetto approaches him to countenance further escapes. There is a touching character, an old man, the teacher, who is offered the possibilities for getting out of the ghetto but who always refuses, staying with the children, even accompanying them on the trains to Auschwitz.
And, there are complications with Heck and his attraction towards Antonina, his experimenting with bison in the zoo, his loyalty to Hitler, his confrontation with the Zabinski son, his reaction to Jan being in the Warsaw uprising, Antonina and her appeal to him to find her husband.
It seems a bit churlish to say that the ending is rather emotional – emotions being important in real life but, somehow other, sometimes seeming a bit too much in the dramatic telling of the story. Nevertheless, this film is quite a vivid recreation of the era and what the citizens of Warsaw, Jewish and Gentile, experienced.