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Film Reviews November/December 2013

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SIGNIS REVIEWS NOVEMBER-DECEMBER 2013


20 FEET FROM STARDOM
AMERICAN HUSTLE
APRES MAI
AUGUST, OSAGE COUNTY
BACKYARD ASHES
BLACKFISH
BOOK THIEF, The
CARRIE
CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS 2
DELIVERY MAN
FILL THE VOID
FILTH
FROZEN
GILDED CAGE, The
HOBBIT: DESOLATION OF SMAUG, The
HOMEFRONT
HOW I LIVE NOW
LAST VEGAS
LE WEEKEND
ONE CHOICE
PHILOMENA
RAILWAY MAN, The
SI PARLA ITALIANO


20 FEET FROM STARDOM

US, 2013, 90 minutes, Colour.
Darlene Love, Merry Preston, Judith Hill.
Directed by Morgan Neville.

How does one find oneself 20 feet from stardom, in front of, to the side of, or behind stardom?

One of the answers is to be a back-up singer. This very entertaining documentary, especially for afficionados of the music that is presented, is an exploration of how many of the American back-up singers experienced their lives, their performances, their dreams, perhaps, of being a solo artist, or relishing the achievement that they had as supporting many of the stars.

It should be said that there is a great deal of singing and music, in the film, an opportunity to see stars like the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Talking Heads, in performance but focusing on the back-ups, after listening to their stories and recounting their experiences of what it was like to sing, to be associated with the stars.

One of the main singers to be featured is Darlene Love, going back to footage of the 1960s to see her in performance, and in the succeeding decades, eventually, at the age of 40, becoming a very successful solo artist with multi-selling records. She appeared for years on the David Letterman Show singing her Christmas song. She is interviewed and seen throughout the film, and in 2011 receiving award acknowledgements with Bette Midler saying it was about time. Another singer featured in the film is Merry Preston, and her featured career.

A more recent singer is Judith Hill, who was back-up for the proposed Michael Jackson final tour, and her singing at his memorial service. While she has the talent for and sometimes has been a solo artist, she enjoys the work of collaborating with the group, and relied on by such talent as Elton John and Kylie Minogue for her contributions.

The backup singers featured in this film are African-Americans?. And so, the documentary is also a survey of the role of these singers from the 1960s when the expectation was that back-ups would be white. But The Blossoms, a vital group with different rhythms, came on the scene and opened the way for many other singers in backup. Is interesting to note that so many of them came from church groups with the great tradition of singing, one of them, Mabel John, being a minister in a contemporary church and instructing young singers.

Also in the film are comments from many of the star performers: from Bette Midler, from Sting, from Mick Jagger, and several sequences with Stevie Wonder, who voice their appreciation of the singers.

Of course, life isn’t plain sailing. Darlene Love reminisces about taking up a cleaning job before she realised what she wanted from life and her talent. The documentary seems intent on avoiding any gossip, delving into personal problems, avoiding discussing marital situations or difficulties. This means that the film’s outlook is very positive, choosing the particular singers, interviewing them sympathetically, listening to their stories, visualising them with a great deal of film and television footage, and inviting the audience to appreciate these often unsung (while they were singing) talents of American show business during the 20th century.

It is definitely a feelgood documentary, and with its focus on the music, the singing and some undaunted personalities. Why not?


AFTER MAY/ APRES MAI

France, 2013, 106 minutes, Colour.
Clement Matayer, Lola Creton, Felix Armand, Carole Combes, India Menuez.
Directed by Olivier Assayas.

The May of the title is that of May 1968, the month of the student demonstrations and protests at the Sorbonne, Paris. It was a moment of truth in French society and politics, signalling change. This story takes place some years later, focusing on a young man in high school, listening to a philosophical paragraph from Blaise Pascal, the teacher urging his students to think about their situation.

The potential for interest in this kind of story is quite strong and has been treated in a number of films, especially Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers. However, while many audiences may be caught up in this story and its characters, many will not. This review is amongst those who were not.

The focus of the story is a pasty-faced, gaunt, long-haired young man who is committed to protests, demonstrating and running the risk of being injured by police brutality, is into painting graffiti on the walls of his high school, likes having abstract discussions about social issues and affiliations with groups like the Trotskyites. He also aspires to be an artist. And he moves with a group of like-minded young people, rather interchangeable with each other, rather than standing out as interesting and distinguishable characters. There is a young woman with whom the young man has an affair, but she moved to London. There is a fellow artist who is infatuated with an American woman in Paris. Then there is another young activist woman who could be in love with the young man, but…

After experiencing some difficulties and threats, some of the group go off to Italy but the young man is dissatisfied there and comes back to France where he is involved, partly-involved, continuing with his art, falling in and out of love, wanting to make films. He finally get his chance to be involved in England when he works at Pinewood Studios in one of those prehistoric kind of films like The People that Time Forgot, but this one has a mixture of dinosaurs and Nazis and a submarine. And there we leave him except that he seems to stand in for the character of the writer-director, Olivier Assayas, who has made a number of very interesting films, but not this one. A film for specialists of the period and those who enjoy French films which are a mixture of the morose and the abstract.


AMERICAN HUSTLE

US, 2013, 130 minutes, Colour.
Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert di Niro, Michael Pena, Louis C.K., Alessandro Nivola.
Directed by David O. Russell.

Some of this is true – an avowal at the beginning of the film. While some of the events may have been actual, one wonders whether this was the tone of these goings on. This is satire, an amusing and funny interpretation of oddball characters and their attitudes and behaviour.

This tone is set in the opening moments as conman, Irving, spends a lot of time putting on his comb-over – reference to his hairpiece often during the film. Later, Bradley Cooper, an intense and ambitious federal agent, has his hair in curlers for his frizzy hairstyle. Amy Adams has quite a few different styles, as does Jennifer Lawrence (hers straight out of fashion magazines) and Robert de Niro seems to have lost some.

By recounting this coiffeur information, it is an indication of the attention to detail (1970s style) that David O. Russell has given to this elaborate con story. Russell has made a variety of genres, from Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees to The Fighter and The Silver Linings Playbook. He works again here with several of his casts from these films. He is certainly versatile.

Back to the cons. Irving has many good things going for making money, being credible to naïve investors, taking his broker’s fee but getting them no money. Christian Bale (who won an Oscar in Russell’s The Fighter) comes across as very different from Bruce Wayne, let alone Batman, showing a flair for comic timing. He encounters Sydney (Amy Adams, also in The Fighter) who is his perfect complement in double-dealings. One of their targets is a mayor from New Jersey, an Italiano, who has mob links though he is earnest about his political influence (Jeremy Renner). Stealing the show whenever she appears is Jennifer Lawrence as Irving’s wife. It is a supporting role but she brings such energy and presence that she makes the very best of her screen time – ditzy and imprudent, often funny.

The hustling becomes complicated when an agent gets wise to what is going on and decides to employ Iriving and Sydney to set up a sting for the mayor and his Florida mob connections. Enter Robert de Niro as a Mafia chief – looking a great deal older (but with a brief flashback to remind us of what he was like in years gone by). And enter a fake sheikh, Michael Pena.

It’s all in the timing, making good when plans go skewiff, exercising trickster confidence.

Surprisingly cheerful, sometimes quite funny, with top performances and some smart dialogue. As they say, what’s not to like!


AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY

US, 2013, 130 minutes, Colour.
Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan Mc Gregor, Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis, Sam Shepherd, Margo Martindale, Chris Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dylan Mc Dermot, Abigail Breslin, Misty Upham.
Directed by John Wells.

August in Osage County is very hot, which does not do very much for people’s moods. And the moods in this film can be sometimes quite grim, often angry, and manifested in bizarre behaviour and a barrage of course language. It is not the most cheerful of family dramas, but is fascinating in a morbid kind of way.

It began life as a play, winning the Pulitzer Prize for its author, Tracy Letts. He has adapted his play for the screen – and, it often seems like a play, relying on intense dialogue and quite a number of set scenes, including an eruption at a long and frustrating family meal.

One of the grimmest characters in Osage County is a successful poet, Beverley Weston (Sam Shepherd) who is immediately introduced as interviewing a young Native American (and much is made of this fact with the film set in Oklahoma) to look after his wife. She is Vi, an angry woman, ageing, ill, relying on a mass of prescription drugs which sends her high and the absence sends her low. She is not impressed by her new maid. So the film begins with tensions and really doesn’t let up.

When Beverley disappears, Vi becomes anxious. At home she has to rely on one of her three daughters, Julianne Nicholson, whom she treats with some disdain. She relies much more on her sister, Mattie Fae (Margot Martindale) who is something of a hard case as well and harbours a family secret.

Coming on to the scene is the oldest of the three daughters, played by a gaunt-looking Julia Roberts, perpetually angry and contributing mightily to that barrage of language. She comes with her husband, a rather meek Ewan Mc Gregor, although it emerges that they are separated. They bring their daughter (Abigail Breslin) who has torn emotions about her parents and is experimenting with drugs. so, plenty more ingredients for difficulties as the family prepares for the funeral and comes back after the funeral for that eruptive meal.

Also in the mix is another daughter who has stayed away from home for a long time. She is played by Juliette Lewis, rather naive, a bit on the outer, with her latest boyfriend, Dylan Mc Dermott, tagging along.

The more calm members of the family are Mattie Fae’s rather quiet and tolerant husband, Chris Cooper, and their son, whom the father admires but the mother is continually ridiculing, and comes late for the funeral, played by Benedict Cumberbatch.

The omission in this review of naming the character and the actress playing her is that of Vi herself. It is Meryl Streep, yet another most impressive impersonation and a different kind of performance and character. She has to play her age and project a complex personality, loving her husband in the past and admiring him, alienated from her daughters, highly erratic in how she deals with people, focusing on her drugs.

Perhaps this could be called a film that it is more interesting rather than entertaining, although it is fascinating to watch the ensemble cast and their interactions. This is a highly dysfunctional American family. Not that there haven’t been many films with this theme, but here it is portrayed both seriously and comically, deadly secrets which can ruin people’s lives, attempts to deal with harsh realities and generally not succeeding.


BACKYARD ASHES

Australia, 2013, 90 minutes, Colour.
Andrew S.Gilbert, Felix Williamson, Lex Marinos, Rebecca Massey, John Wood.
Directed by Mark Grentell.

So this is what life in the city of Wagga is like!

This is a small independent film which, unfortunately, had a very limited release. Audiences would enjoy it very much. It is not often that one sees a city council investing in a film but this is what the city of Wagga Wagga has done, and playing with words, it is a Crow Crow production!

The title tells all, or mostly all. A group of men who work in a local factory enjoy playing backyard cricket, especially in the house of Doug Waters (Andrew S. Gilbert). His friends are all rather Ocker types, pleasingly so, with a capacity for some droll one-liners. They include a friend with Japanese origins, and another with Indian origins and his wife. And not to leave anyone out, there is a Kiwi with a very prominent accent and pronunciation a real target as always.

Then there are retrenchments at the factory, one of the cricketers going off with his wife to find work in Broken Hill. And who should buy his house but the very Pommy official who did the sacking? Doug and family can’t believe that Mr Edward Lords is there next-door neighbour. He is come with his wife and, especially his cat, who plays a significant role in the high drama of neighbourliness and grudge matches – and provides ashes. In fact, Mr Lords is particularly British, pomposity personified, prefers to keep to himself, has no sense of humour, and when goaded into the backyard Ashes, finds that he has an intense drive to win.

Most audiences would enjoy the talk amongst the friends, the barbecues in the backyard, the cricket practice, even for Doug’s young daughter. Meanwhile his wife and Mrs Lords become good friends.

When a feline tragedy ensues, what else can rivals do to compensate and make peace but organise a cricket match, local Ashes?

By the time the match actually comes round, the audience will have been chuckling most of the time, at the recognisable characters, at their interactions, at the local dialogue. This means that by the time of the match itself, we are ready to chuckle all the way through and the match provides plenty of opportunity with its rules, the boasting of one of the players, Spock, who also does a cricket commentary parodying Richie Benaud. Mr Lord’s has found a British team – and the screenplay enjoys itself mocking Pommy manners, Pommy attitudes, Pommy b…

2012 saw another cricket film, Save Your Legs, about a Melbourne team which toured India. It was enjoyable but Backyard Ashes should prove itself even more entertaining, taking cricket seriously, but not taking ourselves seriously.


BLACKFISH

US, 2013, 80 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Gabriel Cowperthwaite.

Save the whale!

This has been an environmentalist cry for many decades, to save the whales in the ocean, to protest against Japanese whalers in the Southern Ocean, other whaling nations, and the concern about beached whales and those in captivity, the Free Willy syndrome. The Free Willy films offer child-friendly stories. The documentary, The Cove, offers grim facts from Japan.

Blackfish is in this vein, it shows its skill as a documentary by enticing the audience with scenes from Sea World in Florida, the antics of whales and porpoises in the theme parks, with commentary from several of the trainers who worked in Sea World in the past. For a moment, for the unwary, it looks as if this might be an advertisement for Sea World and other parks.

It is not.

After being led, or lulled, into some sympathy, we then get the facts from the point of view of the writer and the director. We are informed that there have been several deaths of trainers in different theme parks and we are shown footage of those tragedies. However, the main focus is on the death of a trainer in 2010, Dawn Brancheau, the lack of information from the Sea World management and the excuses, the blame on human error and the trainer, the lack of information for the media about the whale itself, its history, and what really happens to whales and their psyches, so to speak, because of their captivity, restrictions, training and punishments, and their performances.

The witnesses who are interviewed for the film seem to be a credible and creditable group. They fill in the background of their ambitions when they join SeaWorld?, employment and the development of their talents, the exhilaration of being in the water with the whales. Now, they offer some criticism of the management of the theme parks as well as the captivity of the whales. While Sea World declined to be interviewed for the film, some footage is shown of the management in court cases, the film very critical of their testimony and deflection of blame and responsibility. There are also one or other experts who are of the opinion that the whales are not harmed by their being captured, trained and performing.

As a counter to this, there are some sequences of the capturing of the whales, especially the young whales and taking them for sale to the theme parks and rough treatment in some failed European parks.

The main attention is given to the death of the trainer in 2010, a great deal of footage available to show what happened, for an interpretation of the behaviour of the whale, as a counter-criticism to management. And a great deal of sympathy from other trainers for this young woman who died unexpectedly.

The whale in question, Tilikum, becomes something of the star of the show at about the halfway point, but also becoming the villain who kills. Explanations and visuals are offered about his capture, his early career, his dangerous behaviour, his being sold on to Sea World, his training, his performances, his violent action against the trainer. The conclusion that the screenplay draws is that it is wrong to take the whales from the ocean and their life and freedom, and to confine them in such narrow surroundings, and using deprivation of food as a means of training. It is affirmed that this makes the whales very dangerous, despite audiences delighting in their tricks, leaps, diving.

While, in some ways, this film is preaching to the converted, and the unconverted will maintain that whales in captivity are quite safe, not harmed, and not a real threat to the trainers, this is a film which might make a number of converts to the cause of the whales, save the whales, in its appeal to the audiences and their sensibilities and sensitivities.


THE BOOK THIEF

US/Germany, 2013, 131 minutes, Colour.
Geoffrey Rush, Emma Watson, Sophie Nelisse, Nico Liersch,
Directed by Brian Percival.

The novel, The Book Thief, by Sydney author, Marcus drew sack, has become an international best-seller. Now comes the screen adaptation, and interpretation of stories of German citizens at the outbreak of World War II and during the war. The author has explained that he heard these stories while he was growing up from members of his own family.

For decades, audiences have tended to look at films about this period from the point of view of the Holocaust, the persecution of the Jews, their round-up, the sufferings in the concentration camps, the grim aftermath. While these issues are present in this film, they are not always to the forefront. Rather, this is the story of a young German girl whose parents belong to the Communist Party and who has had to flee with her mother and younger brother from Nazi persecution. On the train, her little brother dies and they have to stop for his burial. Afterwards, the mother cannot support her daughter and the girl, Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) is driven away to Stuttgart to a foster family.

The episodes from 1938 to 1945 are seen through her eyes.

The film is fortunate to have Geoffrey Rush portraying the foster father, Hans, a genial man who is kind to Liesel, helping her with her reading, even to putting a dictionary of new words on the basement wall. The mother, Rosa, is played impressively by Emily Watson, a very stern woman, continually commenting on her husband’s behaviour, critical of the girl, a tough German exterior but something of her heart as revealed by the end of the film.

Ordinary life seems very ordinary in the town, Liesel going to school, though humiliated and bullied about her lack of ability to read. The young boy next door, Rudi, becomes her best friend over the years. We see them in Nazi uniforms at school, singing patriotic songs – though both Liesel and Rudi, considering their experiences, take a hearty dislike to Hitler. Rudi is a strong runner and has great admiration for Jesse Owens, even putting black polish on his face to imitate his idol.

We see a glimpse of Kristallnacht and the smashing of the shop windows and the taking away of the Jews. In fact, the family shelters a young Jewish man whose father had saved Hans’s life in World War I. They undergo great hardships as the young man is sheltered for several years, but there are some light moments, especially when snow comes and they build a snowman in the basement and have a snow fight.

With the title of the book, we appreciate that books are important for Liesel, a book she picked up at the graveside of her brother, collecting a burnt book after a fanatic book-burning in the city square, befriending the wife of the mayor, who still grieves her son’s death in World War I, and gives Liesel access to the many books in the in their library. There is a delight in reading, delight in words, Liesel describing the weather to Max who is sheltering – and his gift of a book for her to write in.

Despite the sufferings, the people in the city carry on as best they can, with their deprivations, ultimately having to take shelter during the bombardments – where Liesel is able to create a story which draws the attention of the frightened people. These ordinary people are comparatively isolated from the war, though Hans is conscripted, and do not have access to the information about what is going on in the wider Germany.

The film is narrated by Death, humanised as his voice-over (by Roger Allam) describes his attitude towards people, their souls, their experience of death, taking them to the next world. This is especially important at the end of the film and the issue of survivors of the Allied bombardments.

The film has a pervasive sense of humanity, even in the experience of suffering. Death finally says he is ‘haunted by humans’.


CARRIE

US, 2013, 100 minutes, Colour.
Chloe Grace Moretz, Julienne Moore, Gabriella Wilde, the Judy Greer, Portia Doubleday,
Directed by Kimberley Pearce.

Carrie was a surprise hit film of 1976, both at the box office and critically, with Oscar nominations. It made a star out of Sissy Spacek and marked Piper Laurie’s later career as successfully dramatic. It was the first cinema adaptation of the Stephen King story.

As with so many re-makes, fans of the original ask why a re-make is necessary. Perhaps it is not necessary, but it can offer an interesting opportunity for a re-interpretation. This film is an arresting re-working of the story and characters, but, on the whole, the fans were critical, especially of Chloe Grace Moretz considered too pretty to portray Carrie.

The film has been directed by Kimberley Peirce, who was successful in directing Boys Don’t Cry. She brings a strong female perspective to this film and a strong empathy towards Carrie and an understanding of her mother. To that extent, it is a re-interpretation, placing a great emphasis on bullying at school, as well as religious physical and psychological abuse at home. The girls at school are quite callous in their torment of Carrie, at sport, in the school corridors, in the shower block after she experiences her first period and does not understand it and experiences bewilderment and pain, and the girls call out mocking her, throwing tampons at her, filming her plight and then posting it on Facebook.

Chloe Grace Moretz is a very good actress and gives an interesting interpretation of Carrie. And Julianne Moore is very strong as her mother. Judy Greer has a good role as the sympathetic teacher.

Audiences familiar with Stephen King’s story will follow the prom night development, Carrie reluctant, Sue feeling guilty about her role in the torment of Carrie, urging her boyfriend Tom to take Carrie to the prom, his initial reluctance, his charm, the limo, his gentlemanly behaviour towards Carrie at the prom, urging her to dance. It seems ironic that he should die in the fiasco of the prom.

Gabriella Wilde is the more sympathetic Sue. Portia Doubleday is calculating malice as Carrie’s tormentor.

Of course, those familiar with the story are waiting for the prom and the scene with the bucket of pig’s blood. There is a build up as we see the malicious girl killing the pig and the collection of the blood, her watching from above the proscenium to wait for the moment to pour the blood on Carrie. Once carry is drenched, she becomes an icon of vengeance with her telekinetic powers, creating mayhem in the hall, death and destruction, as she moves her arms and hands as if she were conducting an orchestra.

Finally, Carrie confronts her mother, who has often put her daughter in a cupboard filled with religious pictures and crucifixes, where, at one stage, Carrie sees blood flowing on a crucifix. As her powers are exercised on her mother, she transfixes her to the cupboard door like a crucifixion.

There is some slight respite at the end as explanations are given in a courtroom scene. Then Sue goes to the cemetery, to Carrie’s grave. Because this is a remake, it would have been appropriate to repeat the great shock sequence, so often imitated since, at the end of the original. The same point is made here, but in an ever-so-slight way, which is disappointing. But the film is an interesting re-make.


CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS 2

US, 2013, 95 minutes, Colour.
Voices of: Bill Hader, Anna Farris, James Caan, Will Forte, Terry Crews, Andy Smaberg.
Directed by Cody Cameron and Kris Peam.

The first Cloudy… Meatballs appealed to a great number of audiences and critics. It was quite a colourful show, focusing on a young man, Flint Lockwood, who fancied himself as an inventor and his machine which could actually provide food from the skies, transforming the elements. He was something of a loner, but had a supportive family, especially his father, and a young woman, Sam the meteorologist, who walked into his life and into his romance. The film appealed to adult audiences as well as children.

So, now another visit to the inventor and the opportunity to see how he got on with his machine after it went skewiff in what it provided and what fell from the sky. Flint and his friends were organising themselves in Swallow Falls to tidy up their world when his idol, Chester V, arrives to recruit him to his new company. Flint takes the opportunity to begin again with his inventions, making good from the last one which went awry. He has his usual team, the chicken-clad,Brent, the local policeman, Earl, and with help from Sam and his father.

But… Chester V is not what he seems, or perhaps he is what he seems but Flint does not notice. He has a new machine which also goes awry, intentionally, transforming creatures into hybrids with names such as shrimpanzees, watermelophants, peanut butter and jellyfish, tacodiles, and bananostriches . Needless to say, lots of opportunities for comedy and lives, for visual colourful inventiveness, and the potential for crises.

Ultimately, Flint sees Chester V for what he is and has to rally his troops to remedy the situation which leads to some comic conflicts. Chester’s assistant is a monkey called Barb but she has difficulties with her identity and what she should really call herself, monkey or not, finally coming over from the dark side.

There is a lot of sharp dialogue, plenty of action, use of the imagination for inventiveness, bright colourful animation. Amongst the voice talent is Bill Hadar as Flint, James Caan as Flint’s father, Anna Farris as Sam, Will Forte as Chester.

The film is eccentrically attractive but might be also an acquired taste.


DELIVERY MAN

US, 2013, 105 minutes, Colour.
Vince Vaughn, Chris Pratt, Cobie Smulders.
Directed by Ken Scott

Delivery Man is a star vehicle for Vince Vaughn. For many, Vaughn is an acquired taste for his comedies, many of which are fairly broad. He made an impact in such films as Swingers and The Wedding Crashers. While he has appeared in several serious films, the films themselves are not quite so memorable even though he is a distinctive presence.

This time he might be more memorable especially given the nature of the screenplay. Delivery Man is based on a screenplay and an original French-Canadian? film, Starbuck, written and directed by Ken Scott. Scott has now made an American version.

The opening of the film seems typical Vince Vaughn comedy, his being presented as a likeable loser, David Wozniak, an irresponsible man. He works for his father and with his brothers in meat company, he doing the deliveries but always getting waylaid, getting parking fines, even getting his truck towed away when he should have been delivering baseball basketball jerseys to his father. He also owes $80,000 for a loan in a company that failed and thugs are after him. If the film continued in this vein, it might have just been an average film.

Then, the key plot element is reserved revealed. David gave over 600 sperm donations to a clinic in the 1990s. It was a way of raising money. The name used on the documents kept his anonymity and was Starbuck. Now a group of the children from the donations have instituted a lawsuit for him to come out of his anonymity. He has the friendship and help of his lawyer Brett (Chris Pratt) who struggles with children of his own and is keen on preserving David’s anonymity and getting him damages.

What happens is that David starts to investigate the lives of some of the children, papering his wall with the official documents about the 533. He discovers a struggling actor who finds a job; he works with a young addicted woman and gets her to promise to go to her job in Bloomingdales; he supports a busker in the street, sees another son as a tour guide and listens to him frequently, even in the rain, and there is pathos when he finds that one of the sons is severely disabled, going to visit him, not knowing what to say, but forming a bond.

One day he follows one of the children, a gay man, who leads him to a meeting of the children where he suggests to them, still anonymously, that what they have discovered is a whole range of brothers and sisters and that they should be joyful about this. Ultimately there is a court case, reasons being put forward for his anonymity and his preservation of privacy as well is the reasons for the revelation for the sake of the children to know something about themselves and their parentage.

Of course, there are ethical issues in the whole sperm donation issue and how it was handled by the clinic. But given that the situation has arisen, there are ethical questions about what David should do and what the children have a right to. The film does gather together the various arguments and it ends with a heart answer over a head answer. And, in real life, which is more important?


FILL THE VOID

Israel, 2012, 90 minutes, Colour.
Hadas Yaron, Yiftach Klein, Irit Sheleg.
Directed by Rama Bushtein.

This film is different from the usual stories from Israel. While other films treat the Orthodox Jews and their stories, this film was written and directed by a woman who converted to the Orthodox and has lived within its strict rules and traditions. She is telling the story of a young woman from inside the community.

The film, photographed in authentic locations in Tel Aviv, brings the life and lifestyle of the Orthodox to the screen quite vividly. This is very patriarchal society. Women are subject to the decisions of the men. And this is particularly the case with arranged marriages, the theme of this film.

Shira is a young woman with some energy, studying the traditions, well-informed, but also faced with the prospect of women in the community, her marriage. The film opens with a slightly bizarre episode in a supermarket where a marriage broker contacts the young girl and her mother by phone to indicate that a prospective husband is in part of the supermarket and that they should approach him.

However, a severe complication arises when the young woman’s older sister dies in childbirth. Her husband is expected to marry again, especially for the child, and for a moment he intends to go to Belgium for a new wife. Shira is attracted to him but the thought of her marrying her sister’s husband with the sexual implications somewhat repels her.

Her father is a rabbi and on feasts holds court with people coming to him for advice and, especially, men coming for financial assistance. He runs a strict household and has views on the marriage of his younger daughter. The strong-minded mother is busy running the household but also concerned about her daughter.

There is also a rabbi of higher rank, consulted by many people, who gives advice to the young woman. In discussions with the widower, Shira finds more sympathy for him, especially as he breaks down, with tears for his situation, his dead wife and for his child.

Many audiences watching this film will feel somewhat alienated from the beliefs and the traditions of the people, the marriage arrangements, the situation of women. However, the writer-director presents the situation, takes it for granted, as, finally, does Shira.

A film insightful for its Orthodox audience, a film to be observed by those outside the community and by those who sympathy is not immediately for the community.

Israel’s Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language film for 2012.


FILTH

UK, 2013, 97 minutes, Colour.
James McAvoy?, Imogen Poots, Jamie Bell, Gary Lewis, Jim Broadbent, Shirley Henderson.
Directed by Jon S. Baird.

Filth is not the most attractive title for a film – and audiences seeking it out will not be too disappointed. Audiences who find themselves watching Filth may well be put off by the character at the centre of this film, his behaviour, his generally unredeemed qualities.

The film is based on a novel by Irving Welsh, well-known as an author as well as for the film version of his Trainspotting, 1996, a story of Edinburgh and the drug culture, directed by Danny Boyle. There was a version of his novel, Ecstasy, in 2011, a film about drugs and clubbing which did not make the same impact as Trainspotting. Filth goes a long way to living up to Trainspotting’s impact and reputation.

It comes as something of a surprise to find that the central character is a detective in Edinburgh. The film opens with a racist murder and the police mobilising to investigate. The audience sees who the killers are, a gang of would-be toughs in the city, but the mechanics of the investigation are left in the background of the film. James McAvoy’s? character, Bruce, begins a narration. Some of it is realistic, some of it is fantasy. The image of his wife (who may or may not be around) and her sexuality continues to enter his consciousness. He also suffers from depression, is drug-addicted and seems, at times, to have a sexual addiction. To that extent, his life is filthy.

What he is up to is to get himself promoted and he introduces us to each of the rivals in the office, mainly men, one woman. For a considerable part of the time we see him bad-mouthing, undermining the reputation of the various candidates. One of them is on his side, a young hopeful, but also with drug and sex problems, played by Jamie Bell. Another is quite a good natured, rather unsuspicious policeman played by Gary Lewis (who was Jamie Bell’s father in Billy Elliot). There is also another man from the office, with Bruce having an affair with his wife behind his back. And, to him, the efficient female police officer, Amanda (Imogen Poots) is hardly worth consideration. Another man in the office is gay and Bruce capitalises on this to undermine his reputation. So, not an attractive scenario for us to be participants in.

As Bruce goes about his work, stopping off to his various indulgences, he also has interviews with a psychologist, played with an insinuating and teasing voice by Jim Broadbent. Sometimes hard to tell whether that interviews are real or in Bruce’s imagination.

Bruce also has another victim, Bladesey, who is part of the Freemason brotherhood that the police chief belongs to as does Bruce, a pressure group for the management of law and order in the city. Bruce has some time off and takes Bladesey to Hamburg and leads him on a series of sexual adventures which have a bad effect on Bladesey and he finds himself in prison when back at home and accused of being a pervert. Meanwhile, Bruce has set up a liaison with Bladesey’s wife (Shirley Henderson).

This makes it sound something of a wallow in some misery and filth and psychological disturbance. And it is. What makes it different from other similar stories is the intensity of the performances, the realism and surrealism of the writing as well as many experimental-style techniques in communicating Bruce’s consciousness.

One might say this is a very clever film, as an appeal for audiences interested in the offbeat, but may well be a turn-off for a lot of audiences who prefer their films as portraying humanity rather than a self-inflicted inhumanity.


FROZEN

US, 2013, 108 minutes, Colour.
Voices of: Idina Menzel, Kristin Bell, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gadd, Robert Pine.
Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee.

Frozen is a Disney film, adapting the story, The Snow Queen, by Hans Christian Andersen. Almost 25 years ago, Disney Studios had a breakthrough with their adaptation of Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. Frozen has received quite some critical acclaim and nominations for animation awards and it will be interesting to see whether it enters into public consciousness as did The Little Mermaid.

This is certainly a wintry film. While it opens in sunshine, and life in a country where there is activity and trade, ruled over by a benign king and queen, it soon moves to the grim cold. The reason for this is the character of Elsa, one of the daughters of the deceased king and queen. She has a cold personality but also has powers to transform a sunny experience into ice and cold. Her sister, Anna, loves her but is forced out of the kingdom.

A little unfortunately for us, Elsa disappears from the film until much later while the focus is on Anna, one of those feisty Disney heroines who can irritate audiences with her tough manner, no difficulty in delivering a few punches, while she could be a little bit more charming. We accompany her on her adventures, and meeting up with a pleasant young man Kristoff (not always the brightest!) who is an ice carrier and has quite an agreeable reindeer called Sven. Children’s audiences will probably enjoy the snowman, Olaf, who keeps losing his shape as well as his carrot nose, but parent audiences might find him just that little bit hard to take. And then there are some rocks who turn in out to be trolls. Better is the huge, very huge snowman who pursues Anna and Kristoff.

There are several songs throughout the film, perhaps Disney studios having in mind to turn it into a theatrical musical as they have with Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. There is a mixture of adventure and comedy.

Ultimately, we are back at the kingdom with Elsa defending herself with her powers, transforming rooms with extraordinarily visual ice barriers. And then there is Anna, getting colder and colder, hoping that a kiss from the foreign emissary, Hans, will be a sign of true love and leading to peace in the kingdom – and summer. While that, of course, does work out, it does not happen in the way we might have predicted, but it does mean that Elsa and Anna are reunited and there is always Kristoff for Anna to fall back on.

This is the kind of film that will appeal predominantly to a female audience, but there is enough action and comedy that might attract the boys in the audience. And parents probably won’t mind it at all.


THE GILDED CAGE

France, 2013, 90 minutes, Colour.
Rita Blanco, Joaquim de Almeida.
Directed by Ruben Alves.

This is one of those French comedies which are light on the surface but have something to say underneath. Perhaps it should be stressed that this is a combination of French and Portuguese comedy, the central characters, husband and wife, who migrated from Portugal 30 years earlier and have worked in Paris ever since, bringing up their children as Brazilians and French. The director is Portuguese and is visualising his memories and experiences.

The Gilded Cage has proven itself a box-office winner in Europe, where audiences will identify with the situations in these two diverse countries of the European Union. It travels beyond Europe quite nicely but, probably, without the strong impact that it had there.

The focus is on a middle-aged couple, very well played by Rita Blanco and Joaquin de Almeida. We see the wife jauntily walking along a street, greeting everyone, and then we find that she is the concierge in an apartment block, at the beck and call of an elderly woman whose life is governed by whims, by a Chinese resident, by a couple with twins. She loves work and does not feel imposed on though that is what has happened to her for 30 years. Her husband works for a building construction company and he, in his turn, has been imposed on by the CEO of the company. They have two children, young adults.

Then something happens which transforms their lives, offering them the freedom that they have never experienced, and the possibility of returning to Portugal. The wife’s sister, wanting to set up a Portuguese restaurant in Paris, certainly does not want her sister to go back home and fabricates a story about her very ill husband who needs all kinds of help. And the residents of the apartments certainly do not want her to go, thinking that they could not manage without her. It is the same with the boss of the company, devising ways of making it impossible for his worker to leave him.

Then there is the complication of the son not wanting to leave Paris, and pretending to friends that he is well-to-do, ashamed of his parents, as well as the daughter being in love with the son of the construction boss.

Comedy is to the fore as the couple toy with the idea of being wealthy and trying to keep up with their more affluent friends, especially a meal with all its disruptions, something that the French do so well. Needless to say, there are plenty of crises, especially with the younger generation and the couple’s friends. The daughter’s crisis is beautifully resolved when she goes with her fiancé to a Portuguese restaurant and listen to a singer with a beautiful ballad about Portugal.

Where there’s a will there’s a way – and the trouble started with a will. However, where there’s goodwill there is also a good way and that is how it all ends up, cheerfully and everyone together.


THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG

New Zealand, 2013, 161 minutes, Colour
Ian Mc Kellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Luke Evans, Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett, James Nesbittt, Ken Stott.
Directed by Peter Jackson.

We are now in the middle of the story, a year since we were invited to enter the world of the hobbits, pre-Lord of the Rings, and it will be another year until we reach the grand finale and the final credits. In the meantime, we have this sequel-prequel, sometimes an uneasy middle film in a series of three. However, this part of the story is far more straightforward, less unnecessarily complicated than the first in the trilogy. We have become used to the characters, especially the dwarves with Bilbo tagging along to help them on their quest to regain their kingdom.

This is a story of the dwarves, encouraged by Gandalf to go on a quest to reclaim their kingdom, taken over by a monstrous, but very articulate and rhetorical Dragon, Smaug. As they go on their adventures, continually pursued by villainous and deadly Orcs, Bilbo has been seconded again to the group to infiltrate the Treasury and find the jewel that will lead to success.

Ian Mc Kellen as Gandalf is always welcome in these films. But he tends to disappear for long times, going on his own quest, finding an ally who will enable him to enter the dark caves to confront Smaug. The dwarves have a detour on the way, going into the kingdom of the elves, a dialogue with the King, meet Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom again), who are willing to help the dwarves and who slaughter a great number of Orcs along the way. So, plenty of action adventure for those who like this kind of thing.

The dwarves come into their own in this film, a rowdy bunch in the first film causing mayhem in Bilbo’s home. This time they are more differentiated in character for the audience to appreciate many of them but, especially their leader, Thorin, with Richard Armitage coming into his own as the core of the film rather than Bilbo (Martin Freeman ever reliable). Not the Bilbo doesn’t have plenty of things to do, especially at the end, though it is difficult to understand why he didn’t actually keep the jewel when confronted by Smaug.

Another detour on the way to the kingdom is a visit to Laketown, helped by a trader, Bard (Luke Evans) and his family. He is something of a revolutionary in Laketown, a target of the Lord of and his sinister accomplice. This is one difficulty in the film. The Lord is played by Stephen Fry, looking like Stephen Fry, sounding like Stephen Fry, and making the audience focus on Stephen Fry rather than his character. Nevertheless, there are plenty of adventures in Laketown.

In fact, there are several entertaining adventure sequences, especially when the dwarves escape from the kingdom of the elves in barrels and find themselves not only falling into the water but being carried down river until rescued by Bard.

But the climax of this film is having the dwarves outside the caves, then finding the key (Bilbo does that), getting in, but relying on Bilbo to confront Smaug. As noted, Smaug is a highly articulate Dragon, not lost for a word, speaking in a very cultivated accent – and all this courtesy of Benedict Cumberbatch. He has a great deal of aggressive dialogue with Bilbo while breathing out great gusts of fire. (A pleasure for film buffs is that Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman worked together in the telemovie sereis, Sherlock, Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as Dr Watson.)

This tends to be a very masculine piece of storytelling except for the very vigorous warrior, Tauriel, no slouch in her role of protecting the towards.

This episode finishes with a question in the form of a deadly exclamation, indicating that Smaug is on the rampage, that Laketown is under threat, and the dwarves regaining their kingdom seems less likely… Audiences now have a year’s anticipation!


HOMEFRONT

US, 2013, 100 minutes, Colour.
Jason Statham, James Franco, Isabella Vidovich, Kate Bosworth, Clancy Brown, Winona Ryder.
Directed by Gary Fleder.

Homefront is a standard action show, and not untypical American action show.

It is also a vehicle for Jason Statham, who achieved considerable popularity from 1999 and lock, stock, and two smoking barrels Lock, Stock, and To Smoking Barrels. He became a standard action hero, grim and laconic, tough, in the transporter series and many action thrillers. He is something of an acquired taste – but has been acquired by many fans.

This film opens with a drug bust in the streets of the city, states them as Philip broker, working undercover. After the success of the sting, he retires to Louisiana with his young daughter, Maddy (Isabella Vij of each), building a house with the help of an African American friend, sending his daughter to school where she shows she is the tough daughter of her father by asking bullies to stop twice and then punching him out!

However, there is the constant pervading of drugs, this time a big warehouse outside the town, presided over by local celebrity criminal, gate Gator, James Franco in an unsympathetic role. There is also his drug-addicted sister, Cassie (Kate Bosworth) who is the mother of the bullying boy. No love lost and plenty of anger.

Meanwhile, the father of a criminal shot in the initial drug raid, comes to Louisiana bent on revenge – which leads to a complicated shootout at brokers home, and the taking of his daughter. Coming onto the scene is a kind of contemporary gangsters moll, an unsympathetic and unhelpful role for Winona Ryder.

With all the preparations for a big deal and all of drugs, things go askew, leading to shootouts, the abduction of his daughter and the rescue, and a huge explosion.

The screenplay was actually written by Sylvester Stallone and, 20 years earlier, would have served as an action vehicle for him. So, Jason Statham becomes his substitute on screen – as well as appearing with Stallone in the three Expendable films.


HOW I LIVE NOW

UK, 2013, 101 minutes, Colour.
Saoirse Ronan, George Mackay, Tom Holland, Harper Bird, Anna Chancellor.
Directed by Kevin Macdonald.

How I Live Now is based on a novel by Meg Rosoff. It is a story about teenagers and is geared to the teenage, young adult niche audience. It is written in this style, the characterisations are designed to get young audiences to identify with the characters and their situations, and it is the same with the language.

The film was directed by Kevin Macdonald, an Oscar-winning director of documentaries, including Touch the Void, Enemies. He also directed a few feature films, most notably, The Last King of Scotland for which Forrest Whitaker won an Academy Award.

For those not in the know before they begin to watch the film, there will be something of a surprise in the portrait of the girl who arrives by plane from the United States to stay with her cousins for the summer. We hear the voices in her head during the credits. She is quite a controller, also obsessive, listening to music and surly with people, her clothes with a touch of the Goth, in need of mending, someone with a haughty manner and very little consideration of others. She finds her cousins off-putting as well. Their house could do with some cleaning. There are three children plus the young lad, George, from next door who seems part of the family, the enigmatic Eddie (George Mackay), 16 years old, Isaac (Tom Holland), 14, who was at the airport and drove an old truck home, and the younger girl, Piper (Harper Bird). The visiting cousin is called Elizabeth but she resents this name and wants everybody to call her daisy. She is played by Saoirse Ronan who has proven herself one of the best young actresses (Atonement, The Way Back, The Lovely Bones, The Host).

Audiences will presume that this is a story of someone who feels alien and gradually becomes part of the family and the countryside. Not quite. Or, rather, not at all.

There have been armed soldiers at the airport. We see trucks and soldiers driving through the city and the countryside. It soon appears that there are possibilities of war, the mother of the children being involved in peace activities, going to Geneva for discussions.

Then there is the huge explosion, nuclear, with the destruction of tens of thousands of people in London. War situations then prevail, lack of power, difficulties with food, terrorists (never identified) who have poison the water systems. The children are taken by the army and sent to different sites where they help collect food and try to survive. But, the plan is to escape.

Much of the film is the journey for Daisy and Piper, making their way through the woods, sometimes hiding, trying to survive, a long walk to return home. There are some frightening experiences for them along the way, a crashed plane, men terrorising some women, their being accosted by two men in the woods, finding a container-centre with the bodies of dead boys and young men, preyed on by scavengers.

But, the physical journey is also a psychological and moral journey for Daisy, coming out of herself and her self-centredness, concerned for Piper though irritated by her, letting go of a lot of the controls that she has clung to, listening to the voices in her head very differently.

Some audiences may be reminded of the Australian film, Tomorrow When the War Began, teenagers in a war situation finding ways to survive. But, this is a more character-focused film.


LAST VEGAS

US, 2013, 111 minutes, Colour.
Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline, Mary Steenburgen, Romany Malco, Roger Bart, Joanna Cassidy.
Directed by John Turtletaub.

There have been a number of films in recent years, especially from the United Kingdom, that are targeted to middle-aged and older audiences, especially women. These are the films that husbands accede to because of their wives’ choice. This is one where the wives may have to accede, enjoying the presence of the stars, perhaps, rather than enjoying the story and the macho behaviour. But they may enjoy some of the geriatric jokes at the expense of the men.

The premise is amusing enough. We are introduced to The Flatbush Four, a group of boys, friends from the old days (that is back in the 1950s), whose photos we see during the credits and whose exploits are dramatised in the film’s prologue, just to give us an idea of the kind of boys these characters used to be, somewhat tough, good friends, and two of them in love with the same girl. But here they are, as the film notes, 58 years later.

The smartest and the most financially successful of the four, Billy, played with suave confidence by Michael Douglas, has decided to get married, to his assistant who is 32 years younger than himself. He decides to have a bachelor party at Las Vegas and invites his friends. He phones each of them, who automatically think that a phone call from the others indicates prostate trouble or some other kind of health predicament. They decide to go. Kevin Kline is Sam, married for 40 years, going to health exercises with his wife, but the marriage having fallen flat. He wants to go for some excitement and his wife gives him a condom to take with him but does not want to know anything that might happen in Las Vegas. He phones Archie, Morgan Freeman, twice-divorced, having suffered some strokes, living with his son and his granddaughter. He also decides to go. But the problem is Paddy, who lives in New York, Robert De Niro, who is upset with Billy who did not attend his wife’s funeral when he expected him to as well as to give the eulogy. He does not want to go to Las Vegas and is not exactly happy when he finds out what it is all about.

The film spend some time in partying scenes, which are somewhat like the spring break kinds of capers, trying to pick up girls, judging a bikini beauty contest (which Robert De Niro does not really seem to be enjoying from the look on his face), doing some gambling (at which Archie is particularly successful), and, of course, the loud partying. Someone remarked that it looked like The Hangover for the elderly.

One of the more interesting aspects of the film is the story of the men encountering a lounge singer, Diana, a former lawyer, played very attractively and warmly by Mary Steenburgen. She befriends the group, and the screenplay arranges it that both Billy and Paddy are attracted to her, just as the two of them were attracted to Sophie when they were young and she had to choose. Actually, it is in these scenes that Robert De Niro comes more into his own, better at the dramatic side of things rather than the comic. Michael Douglas is able to handle both. And there is always the problem of whether he should be marrying the younger woman and whether he loves her or not. And there is that ambiguous issue of the condoms in Sam’s pocket, building up to a sequence where, as is so often in American films which raise sexual issues, edifying choices are made.

The film is fairly slight, intentionally so, though drawing for some strength on the friendships with Diana. Otherwise, it is a film or for extroverts who might identify with the elderly Flatbush Four – though the characters are all aged around 70 (which might make many of the audience think of their fathers or even grandfathers as they watch – and wonder).


LE WEEKEND

UK, 2013, 96 minutes, Colour.
Jim Broadbent, Lindsay Duncan, Jeff Goldblum.
Directed by Roger Michel.

Le Weekend has received very good reviews. It is designed for an older audience, probably those who enjoyed The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Quartet. While it is put forward as a comedy, there is an edge to the film. Trying to find a word that would describe its sharpness and its pleasantness, the result would probably be ‘bittersweet’. And, with the British background, ‘bitter’ wins out many times.

The film has a literary background. The screenplay was written by Hanif Kennaishi, novelist and screenwriter whose films include My Beautiful Launderette and The Buddha of Suburbia. He is working again with the director of The Buddha of Suburbia, Roger Michel, well known for such films as Notting Hill.

Nick and his wife have been married for 30 years. He lectures in philosophy at a university college but has been fired because of inappropriate remarks to a foreign student. They have a son who sponges on them. A lot of the spark seems to have gone out of the marriage. They decide to rekindle their love by going back to Paris for a weekend.

The film is effective through the performances of Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan as the couple.

Because the action of the film takes place over two days, we have a great number of ups and downs in the relationship, affection one moment, irritation the next, the desire to walk out, tender moments of reconciliation. To that extent, the screenplay seems to be rather contrived, trying to put as many episodes in the running time as possible. Which means that the relationships and the tensions move too quickly as to be entirely credible.

A lot of the time is taken in going to a hotel, finding it undesirable, booking into an expensive hotel, scouting other restaurants, scrimping at one moment, paying up at others. And there are plenty of irritation scenes to go with it, making the audience continually wonder whether the marriage can be saved.

Then an unexpected character turns up, a friend from Nick’s student days, someone who has admired him and has presumed that Nick’s professional life has been unending success. He invites Nick and his wife to a party which is filled with left-bank intellectuals and academics from the Sorbonne. The friend, Morgan, is played enthusiastically by Jeff Goldblum.

The film then takes an even more serious tone with some conversation sequences, especially Morgan pouring out his admiration for Nick, toasting him at the dinner, then an important speech by Nick outlining the failure of his life. In the meantime, his wife has accepted an invitation to have a drink with one of the intellectuals after the party and has overheard Nick in another important conversation, this time with Morgan’s young son from America. The wife also makes a short speech at the dinner table, which contains a nicely subtle acknowledgement of her love for her husband.

It is not quite over yet, the couple finding that they do not have enough money to pay their extravagant hotel bill. Morgan again to the rescue. His zest communicates itself to the down-and-out couple.

This is a film which middle aged and older couples may well identify with, reflecting on their lives, on their marriage, high points and low points and the possibilities for failure or continuing success. (A caution for some older audiences who might find some of the language off-putting.)


ONE CHANCE

UK, 2013, 103 minutes, Colour.
James Corden, Alexandra Roach, Julie Walters, Colm Meaney, Mackenzie Crook.
Directed by David Frankel.

This is a crowd-pleasing film, the story of a young boy growing into a man, bullied at school, encouraged by his mother, discouraged by his father, a boy who from his earliest years loved opera and loved singing it. It is based on the story of Welsh contestant on Britain has Talent, Paul Potts, who won the competition, despite his nervousness and setbacks in his life, and went on to a career of recording and performance.

The film has been directed by an American, David Frankel, best known in for The Devil Wears Prada, Hope Springs and Marty and Me. He enters into the Welsh atmosphere of the film, filming in Paul Potts’ town, Port Talbot (the town of Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins, Michael Sheen). There are many overviews of the town, the industrial centre, the coast, the port, as well as the details of the houses, the shops, the churches, ordinary life.

James Corden, has appeared in a number of comedies, especially The History Boys as well as the National Theatre’s film of One Man, Two Guvners. This time, while there are a number of comic scenes, Corden creates a credible and sympathetic character. We see Paul as a pudgy young boy, tormented by his classmates and physically bullied and humiliated. We see him as a young adult, still the butt of his tormentors. His mother, played with her usual zest by Julie Walters, truly believes in her son and his talent. His father, played by Colm Meaney, is a factory worker who had his moment as a footballer but has been satisfied with his lot, thinking that there is something odd with his son and his interest in singing.

Paul has been corresponding and texting with a young woman from Bristol, Julz (Alexandra Roach) he calling himself Brad Pitt and indicating that he had similar looks, while she has been Cameron Diaz. When they eventually meet, there is a strong rapport between the two, she encouraging Paul in his desire to go to Venice to train to sing as well as meet Pavarotti. His performance in a local competition, dressed as Pagliacci, draws derision in the pub but he overcomes them and receives thunderous applause. And he goes to Venice, with the possibility to sing for Pavarotti, but his nervousness ruins his audition.

It looks as though he will have to work in the factory, but finds he cannot do it and returns full-time to a temporary job that he had in Carphone Warehouse. Speaking of product placement, Julz works at Boots. When he is invited to perform in a local production of Aida, he has to have surgery for his appendix and collapses, with a later return to hospital when he is hit by a car, even losing his voice for some time. Encouraged by his best friend, a lugubrious-looking Mackenzie Crook who works at Carphone and his hard-case girlfriend, Paul is persuaded to enter for Britain has Talent, with the support of Julz whom he has married.

The film incorporates footage from the actual show, with the judges, Simon Cowell (one of the producers of this film), Amanda Holden and Piers Morgan as well as the response of the audience. Paul receives great acclaim for his singing of Nessun Dorma. There are quite a number of operatic excerpts throughout the film which will please even audiences who are not opera fans.

This is a feel-good film, the kind of film which more serious critics tend to look down on, even venturing the word sentimental. While there is a lot of sentiment in this film, most audiences will appreciate it, share it, with plenty of laughter (and there are some very funny lines), and even a tear when Paul triumphs.


PHILOMENA

UK, 2013, 95 minutes, Colour.
Judi Dench, Steve Coogan,
Directed by Stephen Frears.

Philomena is a good old-fashioned Catholic name, a bit like Christopher, names which derive from saints whose authenticity has been questioned. So, Philomena is an apt name for the central character who evokes a past Catholic Church, a strong and triumphant Church, which is now shaming so many Catholics around the world. This film has subject material that has been brought up in many government enquiries, particularly in Ireland where the key action of this film takes place. The fate of unmarried and pregnant young women in Ireland was often a kind of internment in institutions run by sisters, using the young women as Magdalenes in their laundries. Films which dramatised these situations include The Magdalene Sisters and the telemovie, Sinners.

This is a reminder that the Catholic Church has been criticised in a number of films, especially in the context of clerical sexual abuse. Catholics are being asked to examine the conscience of the Church and acknowledge more sinfulness than they might have imagined in years gone by. Whatever the stance of Philomena, it contributes to this examination of conscience.

The challenge of the film will be more extensive than others since it stars the ever-popular Judi Dench as Philomena and she gives one of her best performances, already nominated for awards. Philomena is getting widespread distribution.

Older Catholics, especially in English-speaking countries, could recount similar stories to those in the film: harsh attitudes towards these young women, severe and authoritarian behaviour of nuns and clergy. But, so many Catholics, while decrying this behaviour, remained steadfast in their faith – as does Philomena Lee, the actual subject of the film.

And the film itself.

It was written by Steve Coogan, best known as a comic performer and writer, himself an ex-Catholic portraying journalist, Labour government adviser, Martin Sixsmith (also ex-Catholic), who worked with Philomena Lee in the search for the son who was suddenly taken from her when he was about six. While Coogan has written all the anti-Catholic comments in the film and Sixsmith demands an apology from Sister Hildegarde, morally intransigent in her attitudes towards the young women, declaring that they deserve their pain and suffering for their immoral behaviour, Coogan has devoted his energies to this story. (There is dramatic licence here since the actual Sister Hildegarde was dead.)

Audiences can forget that it was Coogan who also wrote the faith statements of Philomena as well as her criticisms of Sixsmith’s anger and seeming bitterness.

Judi Dench perfectly embodies Philomena, now elderly, a former nurse, who signed a document of silence about what happened to her and her son. She is a simple woman, not so quick on jokes, loves to recount the plots of Mills and Boons type novels. Martin Sixsmith decides to investigate where the boy might have been taken – which leads to the US.

The search is a blend of hope and disappointment, finally reaching a sad solution, once again highlighting the cruel decisions of the sisters concerning concealing information from Philomena and her son.

While the performances are powerful and the subject so serious, there is a great deal of humour (like the bit in the trailer where Philomena refuses a drink on British Airways, Martin telling her that it is free and she relenting, remarking that you have to pay for everything on Ryanair).

The director is the prolific Stephen Frears, a master of all kinds of genre. His other film with Catholic themes is Liam, a story of Catholics in Liverpool in the 1930s, written by Jimmy McGovern?.

Both Liam, in 2000, and Philomena, 2013, won the SIGNIS (World Catholic Association for Communication) award at the Venice Film Festival.


THE RAILWAY MAN

Australia/UK, 2013, 116 minutes, Colour.
Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Jeremy Irvine, Stellan Skarsgaard.
Directed by Jonathan Teplitsky.

A film that can be recommended – with the caution that it has many harrowing moments.

The advertising for the film seems to indicate that this is a film about the Thai-Burma? railway during World War II. It is, but it is much more than that. The main action takes place during the 1980s.

The film opens with a group of ageing former soldiers sitting in a veterans club in a Scottish town by the sea. One of the characters is Eric Lomax, a veteran of the Thai-Burma? railway. But, he is also a railway man in the present, a love for trains, a seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge of the intricacies of British rail, stations, times, timetables, possibilities for connections. He suddenly rushes out of the club telling the other men that he has a puzzle to solve.

There is a flashback to one of his trips, his missing a connection but working out another, explaining this to the rather quiet and bemused woman who is sitting opposite him in the train. They begin a conversation, he giving information of the history of the town about which she is talking. There is something of an attraction but he has to hurry from the train for his connection. He realises later that he is drawn to her and calculates that he would be able to meet the train she had told him about at Edinburgh station. There is an attraction, love, and a wedding.

In the early months of their wedding, Eric has a nightmare, his adult self back in the prison camp, being hustled into the black hole. He wakes screaming which terrifies his wife, Patti. But he cannot communicate anything of his war experiences to her.

The screenplay, based on the Eric Lomax’s book about his experiences, introduces one of his friends from the camp, Finlay, who is able to take her through his version and memories of the experiences. This begins a series of flashbacks to Eric during the fall of Singapore, the Japanese round-up, the cramming of prisoners on the trains, arrival at the site of the building of the railway as well as many scenes in the camp, the brutal work in the heat, the humiliation of the officers, the beatings. Eric is able to build a radio from scavenged parts which give some contact to the outside world for the prisoners. But this is short lived.

Eric has developed a hatred of the Japanese, a brooding hatred which he shares with Finlay. And the question is raised: can Eric goes through life with the bitterness and the hatred?

The latter part of the film deals with Eric and his emotional dilemmas in the 1980s, including a visit to the site of the camp and an encounter with the translator in the camp. Since the story of Eric Lomax and his book have been quite widely publicised, it is not revealing too much to say that the theme of the latter part of the film is a purging of hatred and a movement towards reconciliation. ‘The hatred must stop.’

The film has been written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, writer for many films of Michael Winterbottom and of the Catholic-themed story of a little boy and his visions of saints, Millions. It has been directed in classic style by Australian, Jonathan Teplitsky (Burning Man). Colin Firth has proven himself a strong and substantial actor over the years and his interpretation of Eric Lomax offers one of his best performances, both direct and subtle. Nicole Kidman plays his wife, unglamorous but with charm and empathy. Stellan Starsgaard is Finlay. And Hiroyuki Sanada has some very strong and moving moments as the translator, Nagase.

Because the Thai-Burma? railway played a significant role in Australian involvement in World War II, the film is of particular interest. But, its theme of cruelty and torture, its theme of bitterness and feelings of vengeance, its theme of asking when hatred must stop and reconciliation be fostered, make it a very moving and significant film.


SI PARLA ITALIANO: LYGON STREET

Australia, 2013, 90 minutes, Colour.
Narrated by Anthony La Paglia.
Directed by Directed by Angelo Priccolo and Shannon Swan.

It is not often that a reviewer watches a film in the place where it was made and is in the title. The Nova cinemas in Lygon street, Carlton, in Melbourne, are not featured at the end of the film but they should be. They draw crowds to Lygon Street to the screenings in their 15 cinema site – where we watched this film in Cinema 8.

While this is very much a Melbourne film, it is interesting in itself as an Australian film, a film about post-World War II migration, especially the Italians (one in six of the migrants in those years). It is interesting because of the issues of migration, the reaction to migrants, issues of language, different culture – and, especially, of food and coffee.

Si Parla Italiano is also highly entertaining. There are quite a few talking heads but, especially, a group of older men sitting around reminiscing both in Italian and in English about what has happened in Lygon Street over a period of 60 years and more. There are also some other speakers, all very articulate, the Australian-born wife of a restaurant owner who brings some down-to-earth reflections on what she has seen in the street during the decades. There are also some guest speakers like Sir James Gobbo, former Governor of Victoria as well as Ralph Bernardi, the Lord Mayor of Melbourne, 1979-1980. There is also a guest appearance of Joe Dolce reminiscing about his hit song in 1980, with some visuals of him singing the song, Shaddap Your Face.

Early in the film, there are scenes of the migrants arriving by ship as well is their being put in a camp in the 1950s outside Wodonga where they were isolated from the community, not having an opportunity to get jobs, although some ran away. The main crisis was about food, a Russian cook and his menus and a revolt on the part of the Italians who succeeded in the in their case for being allowed to cook for themselves.

Cooking was one of the key themes for the growth of Lygon Street but, not before the development of different tastes in coffee and the bringing in of espresso machines, the first time in Australia, with some humorous stories about the installation, some touches of rivalry as to who was first, some words from the man whose father established a business bringing in the machines commercially even though some of the Italians did not know how to work them. And there are some stories about the origins of cooking Italian food, setting up Italian restaurants for Italians – and having to call Italy to get details of some of the recipes.

So, by the 1960s and into the 1970s, Lygon Street became a centre for Italians in Melbourne, the opportunity to come and drink coffee, to have an Italian meal, to talk. This had a carry-on effect for friends of the Italians, the Australians coming to frequent Lygon Street and experience Italian food and culture.

There are lots of memories and anecdotes about life in Carlton in those days and the developments which came when Italy won the World Cup in 1982 and thousands descended on Lygon Street to savour the victory. There are pictures of the celebration for the victory in the America’s Cup where people suddenly turned up and celebrated, but at the end of the day the police had to be called in because of drinking and violence, upsetting for the residents of Lygon Street. Further disruption came with young people bringing their cars and using Lygon street as a drag strip. One of the consequences of this was the widening of the foot paths and putting the block down the centre of the street.

Any gangsters? There were some celebrated families but the men around the table continue to say there is no such thing as the Mafia. One of the speakers is the celebrated contemporary Melbourne identity, Mike Gatto, about whom many things are said and surmised. But there were shootings, there were deaths and towards the end of the 1990s, there was concern about Lygon Street. The residents also have many comments about the television series Underbelly (and a number of sequences are incorporated into the film, especially some with that top Italian actor from Melbourne, Vince Colosimo). Many of them agree that Underbelly was an interesting show but they are at pains to indicate how it really didn’t incorporate a lot of the facts and was not realistic.

It is suggested that curiosity about the gangsters, about Underbelly, brought a number of people back to Lygon Street to ask about what it was really like. And so, in the first decade of the 21st-century, people have flocked back to Lygon Street, enjoying the restaurants and the coffee, enjoying the wide foot paths and the possibility for having meals out in the air and sunshine (more in Melbourne than is thought of by those from other states). It is also pointed out that with difficulties in the economies of Europe, and in Italy, a number of young Italians have migrated and a new generation is working in the restaurants of Lygon Street.

Si Parla Italiano, narrated by Anthony La Paglia, offers a fascinating overview of a section of Australian society for more than half a century. It can take its place with other overviews of different aspects of Australian society and culture. While Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, and Acland Street, St Kilda, have acquired a strong reputation for eating and socialising, judging by the crowds outside the Nova, Lygon Street is still very, very popular.

Created by: malone last modification: Thursday 03 of April, 2014 [13:15:30 UTC] by malone


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