SIGNIS REVIEWS NOVEMBER 2018
BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE, The
GIRL IN THE SPIDER’S WEB, The
INTERVIEW WITH GOD
OLD MAN & THE GUN, The
PRAYER BEFORE DAWN
STAR IS BORN, A
Australia, 2017, 92 minutes, Colour.
Ryan Corr, Abby Lee, Matt Nable, Simon Kessel, Josh Mc Conville, Aaron Pedersen, Jacqui Williams.
Directed by Stephen Mc Callum.
The title is arresting but could be about anything! In fact, it is about bikies – and there needs to be a distinction immediately between bikie gangs and bikie clubs. One of the meanings of 1% is that these are the gangs who capitalise on drugs and money laundering.
Not everyone will want to see a film about bikie clubs let alone bikie gangs. This one is about gangs. The bikies look formidable sitting on their high-powered machines, helmets which may be protective but make them look sinister. Then there are the jackets, the emblems, the tattoos. Some of them look so hard, tough, that they do not elicit audience curiosity.
This film is frighteningly watchable.
The setting is Western Australia, the focus on to gangs, one of which is led by a rather terrifying Sugar, Aaron Pedersen, the rival gang temporarily led by Mark (“Paddo”) Ryan Corr while the “President” Knuck (a title which he over-relishes), played by Matt Nable, who wrote the screenplay, is serving a three-year sentence in prison. While Mark is temporarily in charge, he is encouraged to make a deal with Sugar for laundering the drug money. He is encouraged by the President’s girlfriend, Hayley (Simon Kessel). They have an audience in prison with the “President” but he resents anyone interfering with his power.
And then he gets out. He throws his weight around, has his loyal followers, especially in the clubhouse, a big area where members can play pool, drink, horse around, indulge in sexual activity. At the bar is Mark’s wife (Abby Lee, model and actress for Victoria’s Secret, Calvin Klein, appearing in both American and Australian film is). We discover that looks can be deceiving. She is pretty and glamorous, even at the bikie club. But, as many have noted, she soon begins to remind us of Lady Macbeth, the power behind the would-be throne.
Knuck is a jealous man, loving his partner but not necessarily in love with her. In prison, he has had homosexual experiences and, on release, has something of a roving eye, especially on a young accountant, friend Mark, who becomes Knuck’s victim.
The action soon becomes quite bikie-Shakespearean, Knuck continually asserting his authority is acting capriciously, Mark having to go to Sugar to try to recently negotiate the deal. Clearly, the setting up of battlelines.
There are brawls at the club. There is even a siege of Mark’s house in a pleasant suburban street. There are bodies lying in the garden and backyard.
The pawn in all of this activity is Mark’s rather simple brother, Skink (a very convincing performance bringing in quite some emotion by Josh McConville), who makes all kinds of mistakes, regrets, dreams of a relationship with a girl but is betrayed by one of the women down at the club, has to be defended all the time by Mark. He also becomes a pawn in his sister-in-law’s ambitions which leads to mistakes, Skink having to be defended, deaths and, as in Shakespeare, the end of an era and a new kingdom being set up. We cannot predict who will be the survivors.
As was said earlier in this review, frighteningly watchable.
US, 2018, 116 minutes, Colour.
Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson, Ann Dowd.
“The real” Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk, Chas Allen, Betty Jean Gooch.
Directed by Bart Layton.
What to make of the title? Animal animals? Human animals? Animal behaviour? And in America?
This is a very cleverly prepared film, the dramatic narrative-like fiction. But, intercut is documentary material. (Writer-director, British Bart Layton made an award-winning documentary, The Imposter, 2012.)
It is a story of a heist, a true story from 2003, the setting a university in Kentucky. It involves four young adult students who share the idea of the robbery, stealing and selling some rare books kept in the University library, especially some manuscripts of the naturalist, Audubon (with some beautiful reproductions during the opening credits). It is meant to be something of an adventure, for them to be ‘special’ – which does indicate something of the basically amoral attitudes and perspectives of the young men, their lives and their future.
But, the key element is interviews with each of the four, designated as “the real…”. And these interviews are intercut throughout the whole narrative, the audience watching the performers and experiencing drama, character development, the building up of the plot and the situations, while looking at and listening to the actual men.
One is an art student who appreciates the books and sketches. He is played by Irishman, Barry Keegan. Interestingly, he is of the slight of build and rather timid compared with the “real” Spencer Reinhard who makes quite a good impression, rather taller and thinner physically, but articulate in his telling the story but also in his moral assessment. Evan Peters is Warren Lipka, the leader of the group, seemingly supremely self-confident, arrogant in manner, even shown in a trip to Amsterdam to make contact with potential buyers (did this actually happen or just his story?). The real Warren Lipka looks and sounds pretty self-confident (which is certainly not justified by how he actually acted during the heist).
There is also the bookish Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson)– not quite sure why he said yes to become involved. The real Eric is also rather bookish and theoretical. The getaway driver is a jock Chas Allen (Blake Jenner).
The librarian is played by Ann Dowd, while the real Betty Jean Gooch is interviewed years later with some wise comments.
Interesting to watch the interactions, the manipulation, different leadership roles – and the planning, diagrams, strategies. Even more interesting to see the fiasco dimensions of what actually happened – the presumptions and expectations versus the multi-mistakes of the planning.
At the end, there are the personal assessments of each of the men, of their prison experience, and what it has meant for their lives.
Australia, 2018, 90 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Catherine Scott.
One might call this documentary, “heartening”.
The title refers to a scheme for helping boys and young teenagers to deal better with their lives. It is the brainchild of Bernie Shakeshaft, who appears throughout the film, who spent some time in the Northern Territory when young, appreciated his experience with aboriginal Australians and wants to bring some of this experience to helping the younger generation. And he does.
The setting is north-western New South Wales, Armidale and New England and shows in country towns like Wellington and Condobolin. The audience will feel that they have spent some time living in the area – which is what the director, Catherine Scott, did for two years, embedded in the Backtrack program, sharing life with the boys, with the range of volunteers who work with Bernie Shakeshaft, capturing the ordinary moments, dramatising the boys and their love for the dogs and their training them and helping perform at the local town shows, but also sharing in the drama, the pressures on the boys from their backgrounds, their woundedness, some wilfulness, some hopes.
The opening, with the dogs, and the performances, the boys coming to life by working in training the dogs, is certainly an attraction for dog-lovers.
Once the film has established the work of Bernie Shakeshaft and made the audience welcome at the centre and residence outside Armidale, the film focuses on three young lads who represent all those who have lived and worked at Backtrack.
The teenager, Zach, is the most sympathetic of the three. He has come from Alice Springs, his father has walked out on his wife and children and established a new family, with Zach sent to Backtrack. The experience has been most beneficial for him, bringing out a strong and sympathetic character, his working with some of the younger boys. But, there is a lot of anger in him which has to be dealt with. The audience finds itself very on-side towards him, hoping for the best when he prepares for a job and goes to an interview. But, the rejection brings out his anger, some violence and, to audience dismay, a prison sentence.
The cheeky 12-year-old that Zach helps mentoring is Russell, very brief attention span as he himself confesses. He can be rude, angry, impatient, violent. But, he identifies with the Backtrack program, is more than at home with the dogs and their training. He goes home to his father who loves him but cannot manage him – and, some violence and disruption, leading to a court hearing.
The third boy, Tyler who has had some drug problems, actually goes to jail at the beginning of the film, learns something from his prison experience and, on release, is reunited with his girlfriend.
So, the film is working on two levels, the dramatic story of the boys, the portrait of Bernie Shakeshaft and his vision, a heartening look at someone, with his volunteers, who is concerned about young men in Australian society, drawbacks, trauma, failures, possibilities for hope and success. Heartening certainly and a most worthy enterprise, eliciting admiration from those of us who are not so directly involved.
BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE
US, 2018, 141 minutes, Colour.
Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, John Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Nick Offerman, Xavier Dolan, Shea Wigham.
Directed by Drew Goddard.
Quite a surprise. More than quite enjoyable.
The time certainly are bad. When? 1969. And where? At once glitzy, now rather seedy, big hotel on the border between California and Nevada – with the line marked in red out in the ground and continuing right through the centre of the hotel. One can either stay in California or choose to stay in Nevada!
And, it is a group of people, rather small here, who have come to stay that are the centre of the bad times. Actually, when they arrive, especially Father Flynn and African-American? singer, Darlene Sweet, there is no concierge to meet them or books in. There is, a travelling salesman, full of bravado and boasting (racially insensitive), who welcomes them until banging the bell rings out the rather young and nervous staff member, the only one there, concierge, registrar, barman, speaking this peel about how wonderful the capital Real is.
In fact, this is a rather long film, but it has plenty of action, intriguing characters, unexpected situations, also unexpected time shifts in perspective so that the audience can see a particular event in a kind of re-wind but from another angle or another character’s point of view. (Most reviewers mention the name of Quentin Tarantino – so this review has followed suit!).
There have been some strange goings-on at the El Royale. Right at the opening we have seen a guest, 10 years earlier, digging up the floorboards of a room and burying a bag full of cash, replacing the boards, making the room needs – and then a stranger arriving and shooting him dead. So, we know there is money buried and are on the alert to see who will come to retrieve it.
And, it is possible to see because the salesman, not at all the person we thought he was with all the bluster, is in fact a government agent, sent there to debug the phones, knows that there is a corridor with a one-way mirrors in the rooms – and, we get a tour, watching the activities in the rooms, even a microphone being able to be turned on to catch the dialogue, and the discovery of a rather hard-vision young woman who has a younger woman gained and bound in her room. The agent reports to Washington and is told not to intervene. He does – and that is only the beginning of all kinds of bad times. (And the salesman is played by John Hamm, obviously enjoying himself, until…!)
Father Flynn seemed both the clerical type and not the clerical type, a typical enough and engaging performance by Jeff Bridges. He seems the most likely candidate to be after the money. Arriving with him, is the singer, played by British actress Cynthia Erivo, a subtle performance with several opportunities for her to sing. The brassy young woman is played by Dakota Johnson.
Particularly interesting is miles, the concierge, played by Lewis Pullman (son of Bill Pullman), who has been part of the mysterious history of the hotel, clearly a rendezvous for politicians and others to misbehave, be spied on, be filmed, he reported, subjects for blackmail…). Lewis is agitated, has a history (and later Vietnam war flashback), and is desperate to repent, to confess, glad that Father Flynn is about. Later, there is quite an effective confession sequence (writer-director Drew Goddard has a Catholic background).
And, there is even more, complications about the two women, flashbacks to an abusive father, to life in a cult where the leader might have some values but is actually preoccupied with sexual relationships. And, he is played quite convincingly, quite the opposite of four, by Chris Hemsworth.
Plenty of tangles, plenty of unmasking is on identities, somebody count, but, all in all, plenty of interest, plenty of action, quite a lot of humour, and, despite a long running time, very entertaining.
UK, 2018, 135 minutes, Colour.
Rami Malek, Lucy Baynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello, Aidan Gillen, Allen Leach, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers.
Directed by Bryan Singer.
As the film ends, and, especially in retrospect, many audiences will be very glad that they have seen Bohemian Rhapsody – even if they are not familiar with Freddie Mercury and Queen or their music. There is a verve and vitality in the storytelling, music and performance, and some touching human elements. (Some critics and experts have quibbled about aspects of the chronology, action – but it is not a documentary and, as the final notice always says, some characters and events have been fictionalised for dramatic purposes.)
The film begins with Freddie Mercury walking towards the stage for Queen’s performance at the Live Aid concert, Wembley, July 13, 1985. Then there is flashback introducing Farrok Busara, often mistaken (and at his work as a porter at Heathrow) for a’ Paki, but who comes from a Zoroastrian Parsi family who had taken refuge in Zanzibar but forced from there in the revolution of 1964 to settle in England.
Farrok is rather defiant of his father, goes to clubs, enjoys the music, encounters a group called Smile (including Brian May and Roger Taylor who share producer credits for this film). They lose their lead singer and, unabashed, Farouk promotes himself. He excels as the lead singer, the atmosphere of the 70s, long hair, flamboyant clothes, dramatic strutting and rock ‘n’ roll. He is also into promotion, gets Roger to sell his beloved van to pay for a recording session, gets the interest of an agent, John Reid (Aidan Gillan), gets a lawyer, Jim (Miami) Beach (Tom Hollander) as well as the interest of entrepreneur Ray Foster (the final credits remind us that he is played by Mike Myers whom we might not have recognised during those scenes).
The group is almost immediately successful, Farouk becoming Freddie and adding the surname Mercury by deed poll, an extensive tour of the United States where audiences respond vigorously. Freddie also has a camp manner but becomes infatuated with a young woman he sees, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), proposes to her, lives with her, introduces her to his family along with the band, but the screenplay begins to insinuate Freddie’s homosexual orientation, his telling Mary that he thought he was bisexual and her telling him that he was gay. He has composed a love song to her, they live near each other with phone calls at night on his part, and they remain friends.
The song that Ray Foster found difficult to appreciate and to financially back was Bohemian Rhapsody, with the film giving some glimpses into Freddie’s inspirations and composition, falsetto Galileo’s from Roger, taking risks, eccentricities.
The screenplay also brings Brian May (an empathetic performance by Gwilym Lee) and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) to life, the former and astrophysicist who later became Vice Chancellor at University, the latter a dentist. They are also joined in the band by John Deacon (Joseph Mazello). All four members of the band contributed to creating the songs and the lyrics, and dramatic moments - as Brian May suggests footstomping and clapping which leads to heightened audience participation, We Will Rock You…
Freddie is moody, creative, but the group is able to stay together, ups and downs, for more than a decade. If there is a villain in the piece, it is the PR man, Paul Penter (Allen Leach), with a touch of the predatory and then possessiveness of Freddie as a person, his lifestyle, his career. Which means a decline in Freddie’s life, drug taking, alienations.
The chance for redemption comes with Live Aid, Freddie wanting to reconcile with the band, their forgiveness, the opportunity to perform to such an enormous audience, and for a good cause, not from moneymaking. There is certainly enormous vitality in this reproducing of the performance (reminding us that those thousands at Wembley and the millions who watched on television, if they were even 20 in 1985 are no in their 50s, meaning that there are thousands, millions of fans, potential for seeing this film.)
Rami Malek excels as Freddie Mercury. The impersonation is most telling, the mannerisms and voice synching the songs are compelling, and he brings a humanity to his character, even when we are disliking him, with some very emotional moments at the end, admitting what he has done wrong, reconciling with his family and with the band, telling them he has contracted AIDS.
It seems that he had some peace in his life after U Aid, a companion, knowing that he had become what he was meant to be – and sadly dying at the age of 45 in 1991.
US, 2018, 114 minutes, Colour.
Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton, Xavier Dolan, Troye Sivan, Jesse La Tourette, Britton Sear
Directed by Joel Edgerton.
Audiences who choose to see Boy Erased will know that it is about conversion therapy, methods of therapy to convert gay candidates to a heterosexual life and orientation. It is based on the book of the same title written by Garrard Conley who is the centre of this film, a character called Jared Eamons. He is played with quite some sympathy and strength by Lucas Hedges (Oscar-nominated for Manchester by the Sea, Frances Mc Dormand’s son in Three Billboards).
An interesting note is that this was released at much the same time as another conversion therapy film, focused on a teenaged girl, The Miseducation of Cameron Post. There are similarities between the two films in the therapy, methods used, qualifications (or not) of those in charge of the program. Both films are worth seeing.
There is also an interesting Australian note. This very American story has been adapted for the screen by actor, Joel Edgerton, who directs as well and takes on the role of the therapist. And, while the setting is Arkansas, Jared’s parents are played by Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe (appearing together at last!). Both give interesting and nuanced performances.
So, response to this story will depend on audience attitudes towards conversion therapy, approval or disapproval of its methods, the questioning of the qualifications (as happens in this film) of those who set themselves up to manage such programs. The antipathy towards conversion therapy will be heightened during the scenes of therapy, even the strict and stern entry into the centre, a bit like entering prison and giving up everything to be retrieved on release, filling out forms indicating defects in the family, preparing a diary of past encounters, hard role-plays with a therapist, while mouthing sympathetic and “honest” words of feedback, comes across as bullying.
There are two flashbacks where Jared has encountered a student at college and where he has been attracted to a visiting artist.
The program is not entirely prison-like, the young people not living in generally but going each evening to a local hotel with the parent or guardian, thus giving Jared the possibility of discussing everything with his mother, time to think about his father, an earnest man who runs a car dealership but is also the local preacher. The conversion centre also uses religious language, sometimes focusing on God, but more frequently focusing on behaviour and sin.
The religious background is strongly evangelical, the literal interpretation of God’s word as a norm for all behaviour. This raises difficulties for the father, disapproval of his son’s orientation, calling in religious elders to advise him, sending off his son to therapy. The presentation of the church and this version of Christianity would certainly alienate many audiences, especially compassionate Christian audiences.
Another strength of the film is in presenting glimpses of other young men and women doing the program, especially a rather hefty boy who is humiliated, literally belted by the family to express their disapproval and urge his conversion. Another boy salutes as a greeting because he does not want to touch anyone. And yet another advises Jared to fake the participation in the course.
Ultimately, Jared will confront the therapist in some highly dramatic moments.
The film ends four years later, Jared a writer, in contact with his mother, hoping that his father would read what he had published, visiting his father and talking very frankly to him. Audiences will leave the cinema with a touch of hope because of the final information about Jared, dismay at the information about the therapist, and a genial photo of the actual Garrard and his parents.
Germany, 2018, 88 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Hans Block, Moritz Riesewieck.
Cleaners? Actually, the technical title for the people studied in this documentary is “Content Moderators”.
The film asks us to consider the Internet and Social Media, specifically Facebook (and other similar, very popular, social media used throughout the world). And the consideration is the posting of what is considered unsuitable material: whether it be Russian propaganda to influence political elections in the United States, racist bigotry anywhere, violent images, sexual images. We hear about them being “taken down”. But who does this taking down?
The film-makers are from Germany but the centre of attention of this film is the Philippines, Manila. As might be expected, there is material from the United States, a number of journalists, Internet technicians, and sequences from Congressional hearings from 2016 with the representatives of Facebook, Google et cetera attempting to answer their interrogators clearly but not always succeeding. With these interviewees, we are somewhat familiar, having heard or read about their opinions on “taking things down”.
However, interest is more than roused many questions are raised by the interviews with the men and women who are employed by the companies in Manila. They refer to themselves as “Content Moderators”. We see them as ordinary citizens, men and women, different ages, at home, sometimes in poor situations, happy to have a job, going off to work where they will sit in front of computer screens for hours, looking at images, thousands a day, and making a judgement when they make their announcement “Delete” or “Ignore”. These are the people who are making the judgements on what can be seen, what should be removed.
It may not be a consideration that has ever come to mind – our simply taking it for granted that people do the removing of the material. But, as we watch these men and women, listening to their being interviewed, all kinds of questions arise. What are their qualifications? What is their actual training? How much are they influenced by personal attitudes, stances, beliefs? And the answer to that question is that they seem to be in influenced considerably. And then the question arises as to who supervises the Content Moderators?
The Philippines is a Catholic country, people devout, devotional, traditional in their attitudes and beliefs – which becomes very evident from the interviews. And, it would seem, that many of the moderators have led fairly sheltered lives, not familiar with some of the gross sexual images that they are confronted by, even having to learn some basics about human sexuality. We see them learning some sexual vocabulary that they find abhorrent. They see a violent war picture – is it proper reporting? Is it ISIS propaganda? And, confronted by an American cartoon – and the example given is that of a satiric painting by a young California artist of President Trump naked – is it obscene, is it pornographic, is it legitimate sender or spoof?
This is not a long film but, as it progresses, shifting to the Congress, back to Manila, back to journalists and experts, back to Manila, computer graphics illustrating information and statistics, back to Manila, the documentary audience have far more questions and puzzles than they might have anticipated.
Yes, there is unsuitable material on social media. Yes, much of it needs to be taken down. Yes, there have to be responsible people from the companies. But, selection of Moderators, training of moderators, assessing their decisions – who is responsible and how do they exercise that responsibility?
The Cleaners might sound an innocuous title – but the issues are far from innocuous.
Germany/Ukraine, 2018, 110 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Sergei Loznitsa.
Anyone contemplating going to see Donbass needs a strong recommendation for a bit of homework about Ukraine during the last decade, the interventions of the Russians, the annexation of Crimea, the civil war in the East, the downing of the Malaysia Airlines plane. Ukraine has been in the headlines but its impact outside Eastern Europe, in western countries and other continents, may seem rather alien and distant.
This is an award-winning film. The director, born in Belarus, moving to Germany, has Ukraine as his main focus for his films, fiction and documentary. He combines both talents here.
Donbass is a town in eastern Ukraine that would not be high on the list of any tourist planning. It is not a place where the audience might like to live. And we are shown why.
The film begins arrestingly, rather of-puttingly, with a group of acting extras being made up for a television performance, some carrying on with high demands from would-be-divas, the make-up artists at work, authorities arriving, counting of the characters, herding them out into a marketplace for filming, a bus, an explosion, news or fake news? The film returns at its end to this situation with some grim comment.
What follows is a series of vignettes, episodes which seem generally unconnected, but which follow, one from the other, as the camera follows characters and takes the audience with it.
Some pompous officials are at a board meeting when a woman, protesting that she is not guilty of corruption, arrives and unceremoniously tips a bucket of excrement over the president of the meeting. That in itself makes comment about the country and its governing. There is worse when a rather large, pompous businessman rounds up the hospital staff who have complained about lack of food and equipment and points out refrigerators chock-full of food and drink, new equipment – and then goes into the next room where we see him and his associates and how they have set up fake supplies, capitalising on corruption and deals – though he is held up by Russian military on the road and is almost in danger of being exposed and imprisonment, but gets away.
Amongst the other episodes we find a businessman whose car has disappeared, confiscated by the government, leaving him bewildered and desperate. We also see a group of earnest peacekeepers with religious icons and relics approaching an official to persuade him to use these religious items – and he bewildered and criticising them behind their backs.
There is an enormously extroverted wedding sequence, a civil affair, the official trying to get through the required procedures but being overwhelmed by one of the most boisterous brides ever on screen, a seemingly subservient husband who does break out at times, a crowd drinking and cheering, letting loose.
Perhaps the most disturbing sequences involves an old man, considered a traitor, dragged through the city by military, tied to a pole, insulted and tortured, some young toughs joining in the violence, then a seemingly ordinary old lady becoming particularly abusive.
The ending is enigmatic, a camera fixed at some distance and for quite a long time from the caravan where the actors were being made up, each one of them coming out individually, facing the authorities…
A serious film for its themes rather than an entertainment.
US, 2018, 128 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Michael Moore.
At last another probing of US society by Michael Moore. There he is, a strikingly lumbering presence, interviewing a range of people, travelling all over the US, speculating on the past, pessimistic about the present – and opening up the future for the audience to ponder. His previous documentary was on war aggression, Where to Invade Next (2015).
After he won an Oscar for his expose of American violence and love of guns, Bowling for Columbine (2002), he looked at the US pre-and post the attack on the Twin Towers, playing on the title of Ray Bradbury’s science-fiction thriller about fires and conflagrations, Fahrenheit 9/11. Fortunately for him and for the title of this look at the US, the announcement for Donald Trump’s attaining of the American presidency was in the early hours of 11 November, 2016. So, Fahrenheit 11/9.
Michael Moore has many admirers, and many detractors. A sentence that has been used for many of his films is: if only 50% of what he presents is accurate and true, then that is most alarming.
We are taken back to the election days of 2016, the campaigning of both Trump and Hillary Clinton, the response of their admirers, the excited atmosphere and expectations, crowds to support Hillary Clinton, a small group assembling for Trump, the changes in the figures coming in, triumph for Trump, tears for Clinton supporters.
While there is a great deal about Trump, his past, his real estate deals, his wealth, his television career, personal details (and some very creepy sequences with his daughter and the way he refers to her with sexual overtones), there is a great deal more.
Michael Moore comes from Flint, Michigan, and made his first documentary, Roger and Me (1989) about the motor industry in Flint and the collapse of the town. There is a sequence where Donald Trump says he liked Roger and Me (and a sequence where he is interviewed with Michael Moore on the Roseanne Barr show). He has often returned to Flint but this time he has quite a harrowing story, an expose of the governor, a Republican businessman, who developed a scheme to profit by water coming into Flint, pure water from Lake Huron by a pipe system but the governor approving an alternate pipe and Flint being dependent on the chemically dangerous, lead-filled, Flint River. And lots of doubletalk from politicians and PR representatives.
This is an extended story, Moore trying to interview everyone concerned, footage from 2012 on, the inhabitants of Flint, the economically poor, many African- Americans, with deteriorating health, especially the children. At one stage, there is excitement in the town when President Obama decides to visit – which turns out to be a PR disaster when he has not appreciated the problems, people’s reactions, and he does a stunt in offering to drink the water (but the glass touches only his lips). Moore is not 100% supportive of Obama does some explaining that previous administrations, from President Clinton and deregulation of banks, through the Bush administration, paved the way for social situations in the US and the coming of Trump.
There is also a story from West Virginia, another Republican governor, strictures on the teachers in the public schools, the rebellion, days of striking and persistence until their winning their case.
Also included is the story of the students after the shooting in the high school at Parkland, Florida, the students getting together, forming office and a committee, going political, using social media, indicating the aspirations of young Americans, issues of and control.
And all throughout there are many interviews on many topics. There are many visits to American communities. There are many statistics. And, throughout, Moore’s often comic, often ironic commentary.
Towards the end, there is extensive use of footage of Hitler and the Nazis, Moore pointing out the similarities between the 1930s, popularism, the characteristics of dictatorship, Hitler throwing out slogans absorbed by the people… And the Trump parallels, especially his throwing out of slogans and ideas, popular bonding with his followers, their absorbing his slogans and believing them.
The film was released just before the mid-term elections for Senate and House of Representatives in 2018. How long before a further episode from Trump’s America?
UK, 2017, 98 minutes, Colour.
Andy Nyman, Martin Freeman, Paul Whitehouse, Alex Lawther, Paul Warren, Kobna Holdbrook Smith, Nicholas Burns.
Directed by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman.
The moral of this story, these stories, is that the mind sees and hears what the mind wants. (Perhaps?)
In fact, there are three case studies to be examined in this film – but, the film takes us beyond, into the world of the investigator of the cases, quite sceptical, ready and eager to explain every case in ordinary language, in psychological terms.
The investigator is played by actor Andy Nyman who, along with Jeremy Dyson, wrote this piece originally for the stage, for the theatre. They have now adapted it for the screen. Which means then that they can go into all kinds of realistic times and places, into the world of the case studies.
In fact, the film opens with Andy Nyman as Philip Goodman, exposing a mind reader on stage. Philip is also in admiration of another debunker of such ghost stories, Charles Cameron, who is seen showing an episode to be fake. But, Charles Cameron, seems to have disappeared and nobody knows where… When suddenly, Philip Goodman, receives a communication from him, summoning him to his smelly and old caravan. Goodman expects some praise but instead is criticised by Cameron – and given the folders for three cases and a challenge to solve them.
So, Of the audience goes with Goodman, to examine the three cases.
The first concerns a security guard played by Paul Whitehouse, a tough man who nevertheless is terrified by an apparition, the presence, of wife and daughter. Into flashback, into eerie atmospheres of an abandoned site at 4 o’clock in the morning, power going out, doors slamming, connections being pulled, and a man convinced that he has had a ghostly experience.
The second concerns a young man, Alex Lawther, bullied by his mother and father, keeping his door locked – and with all kinds of photos and posters of sinister and demonic presences. Into flashback, his driving along a country road having failed his driver’s test, his father phoning him continually, a sudden crash, fleeing into the forest, ominous presences.
And the third. Martin Freeman is a somewhat suave businessman, taking Goodman on a hike up a country hill. Into flashback, this time a rather spacious and wealthy mansion, the story of the businessman and his wife and her business competitiveness, becoming pregnant at 40, the call from a hospital, ominous.
So, there are the stories, with Goodman and his rational explanations, going back to Cameron – who pulls quite a surprise, unmasking himself.
That isn’t quite the end of the film – there had been home movies at the opening with Philip Goodman and his family, his Bar Mitzvah, his bullying father, and a visit to him in the home for the elderly. And then there is a story about Philip being bullied at school, a simple boy persuaded to go into a stormwater channel with some dire results, especially for Phillip himself who professes that he
was helpless to do anything to help the boy…
Actually, the film is not over by any means and to go any further would be an abuse of spoiling the outcome, but, it does have a twist!
THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB
UK/Germany//Sweden, 2018, 117 minutes, Colour.
Claire Foy, Sylvia Hoeks, Lakeith Stanfield, Stephen Merchant, Cameron Britton, Vicky Krieps, Sverrir Gudnason, Claes Bang, Christopher Convery.
Directed by Fede Alvarez.
From Elizabeth to Lisbeth. Claire Foy who portrayed Her Majesty in the series, The Crown, comes to the well-known Lisbeth Salander (via such films as Breathe and First Man, as Neil Armstrong’s wife).
Millions read Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. Millions saw the Swedish film trilogy. Unfortunately, the box office returns for the American version of The Girl in the Dragon Tattoo, with Rooney Mara, was not as financially successful as hoped and so there were no more American versions of the trilogy.
And Stieg Larsson died.
David Lagerkrantz has taken up the tradition and this film is based on his first Millennium novel. Readers who know the novel say that the film is substantially different. However, as the credits say, “based on characters created by Stieg Larsson”
So, once again, The Girl, Lisbeth Salander, the fierce righter of wrongs, black clothes, tattooed, piercings, taciturn, partnering women lovers, ultra-expert on technology, the Internet, hacking, is back. Noomi Rapace play Lisbeth Salander three times, a threatening figure, not engaging in any likeable way. Rooney Mara was more attractive even though ruthless. Claire Foy is also ruthless but not always all-conquering, suffering, a touch waif-like in her appearance, even tearful at the end.
The prologue to the film takes us back to Lisbeth’s origins, her father who later became involved in international intrigue, her blonde sister, Camilla, the children playing a game of chess, the father, a womaniser, summoning Camilla to his bedroom, Lisbeth opting out, falling backwards from a balcony and escaping through the snow. A quick establishing of her character. Then, suddenly, much older, she is threatening a businessman brutalising his wife, hanging him up by his feet, using her taser, rearranging his bank account, especially to benefit his wife.
So, we have been put back in the vein. The main part of the plot is technologically focused, an expert (Stephen Merchant) has given his files about world sites for nuclear warheads to the Americans but commissions Lisbeth to get them back. She does, but it is immediately stolen from her by a gang of thugs, led by The Spider. Her friend, writer Michael Blomqvist (Sverrir Gunadson from Iceland) comes back to work, his magazine taken over, but friends urging him to write. He does some investigations into The Spider gang.
A lot of action, including some car chases, some brutal killings, the scientist’s autistic son being held to ransom, an American IT expert (Lakeith Stanfield) is after the missing file, is fobbed off by Swedish authorities, explores on his own initiative, teaming up with Lisbeth and her nerdish expert.
Perhaps this film could be more likened to a James Bond action rather than to a complex Stieg Larsson thriller, a lot of weaponry, a lot of technology, and the audience hoping, perhaps, that this is all very far-fetched.
But, there is also the personal story, going back to that chess game with the little girls, Lisbeth sister’s choice of her father – and deadly consequences.
The film ends in a burning conflagration and Lisbeth riding off on her motorbike – to (if the box office is financially successful) another episode attaching
US, 2018, 106 minutes, Colour.
Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, Will Patton, ‘s Rees, Jefferson Hall, Toby Huss, Virginia Gardner, Dylan Arnold, Miles Robbins.
Directed by David Gordon Green.
Those old enough in 1978 to remember their first experience of Halloween will be wanting to see this climax to the story and to the profitable franchise over the decades. Those not old enough to remember, according to box office figures, certainly want to see this version.
The screenplay fills in the background of what happened back in 1978, the character of Michael Myers, the killing of his sister, the slashing murders, his mask. There is some use of the voice of actor Donald Pleasance from the original film and his analysis of the mind of Michael Myers. And, of course, there is Michael’s sister, Laurie, played in those days by a very young Jamie Lee Curtis who now plays not only a mother but a grandmother.
The original film was cowritten and directed by John Carpenter, leading him onto a successful career as a director, often exploring horror themes. Carpenter was also a musical composer and had a memorably evocative piano score and orchestrations for his original film. He has given his blessing to this production – and also contributes the musical score, drawing on his original themes.
So, audiences are ready for Michael Myers – and his potential demise.
There are quite a number of new characters after all these decades. There is Laurie’s daughter who we find was taken into care when she was young, Laurie having married twice and divorced twice, but authorities wary of her. The daughter, Karen (played by Judy Greer), now has a husband and a daughter of her own, Allyson (Andi Matichak), who, of course, will be crucial to the climax.
Two British journalists get permission to visit Michael Myers, interview the new doctor who is looking after him, going to the yard where he is confined to a square, and try to get some response from him – without success. They later go to interview Laurie – and, of course, they will encounter Michael Myers in much less salubrious situations!
Of all things, Myers is to be transferred to a new facility on Halloween. What could go wrong? Well, a bus crash and the prisoners escaping, all being recovered except Michael. His doctor was on board – and the later behaviour of the doctor wonders how much of the crash was his responsibility, his obsessive study of Michael, wanting to understand and feel what was going on in Michael’s strange and twisted psyche.
So, the setting is ready. The kids are in their costumes, out on trick or treat. Michael is on the loose and, in the slasher vain that the original Halloween fostered, there are a number of indiscriminate victims, Allyson’s boyfriend as well as his friend, Allyson’s babysitting friend and her boyfriend, several victims around the town, the pursuing police.
Which builds up to the anticipated climax, the siege in Laurie’s house with all its security devices, hiding place in the basement, the three women confronting Michael Myers and his death and the house destroyed in a conflagration.
An apocalyptic ending to the Halloween story.
US, 2018, 122 minutes, Colour.
Gerard Butler, Gary Oldman, Common, Linda Cardelini, Michael Niqvist, Toby Stephens, Caroline Goodall.
Directed by Donovan Marsh.
You could hardly have a more direct and blunter title than Hunter Killer. Not exactly subtle. And some of the action throughout the film is not so subtle.
However, it does become more complex in its perspectives, in its military perspectives, in its political perspectives, especially in the confrontation between Russia and the US.
For those who like submarine films, here is another in the tradition of The Hunt for Red October, Crimson Tide, K-19, the Widowmaker. And for those enjoyed these films, this one will be enjoyable, quite satisfying.
Hunter Killer is actually the technical name for submarines which go into action. One is under the water and under the ice in the Barents Sea when it becomes involved with, pursued by, threatened with torpedoes by, Russian submarines. And then the Russian submarine is destroyed – but not by the Americans.
and his advisor, Jayne Nicquist (Linda Cardellini). They have a solution to a possible international crisis, even threat of nuclear war. They have a contact, a submarine commander who did not go through the training at Annapolis but learned on the job. He is Joe Glass, played by Gerard Butler, who has already done quite an amount of action-saving in Olympus Has Fallen, London Has Fallen (and another Fallen action drama to follow). (And, once again, Gerard Butler shows what an effective Jack Reacher he might have been.)
Not everything is as clear-cut in the Pentagon as we might have hoped. The main admiral is played by Gary Oldman, prone to be hawkish. And there is a sequence with Madam President (Caroline Goodall) very reminiscent of and looking like Hillary Clinton (maybe the film was in production before her unanticipated presidential defeat.)
Plenty of complications ensue, the discovery that the destruction of the Russian submarine was not the work of the Americans, that something strange is going on at the Russian port, including the Russian President (the tall dark and handsome actor might make Vladimir Putin more than envious!), his Foreign Minister, a coup.
Also in the act are a group of super troopers who are flown in from Turjikistan, parachuting into Russia, able to set up cameras and audio to give the Pentagon info on what is going on and helping them to make decisions. In the meantime, Joe Glass, with criticisms from his second in charge, rescues some Russians from their doomed submarine – which leads to a scenario for sailing through mine-charged depths, the rescue squad in action, helping the Russian President, avoiding an international confrontation.
So, entertaining submarine action and Russian- American conflicts – and the niggling thought throughout as the audience might wonder as they watch this hypothesis and scenario, what might actually be happening in the real world right now.
AN INTERVIEW WITH GOD
US, 2018, 97 minutes, Colour.
David Strathairn, Brenton Thwaites, Yael Globglas, Hill Harper, Charlbi Dean Kriek, Bobby di Chicco.
Directed by Perry Lang.
The tone of the title indicates that this will be an earnest film. And it is.
Clearly, the themes will be religious. But there are many philosophical issues, especially about evil and free will. The screenplay touches on some biblical themes; the film has been produced by a Christian company, emphasising that the path to God is very much focused on the Judeo-tradition and its culmination in the person of Jesus Christ.
Audiences who have an aversion to explicitly religious films will find their aversion reinforced. Audiences who are sympathetic to explicitly religious films will find a lot to interest them, to provoke them, although they might find the tone the time is rather didactic, at times preachy.
This said, there is a lot of questioning (on the part of the interviewer, of course, but also God being able to reverse the interview, making demands on the interviewer), which demands answers from the audience for their own integrity, authenticity of belief or non-belief.
A large part of the film consists of the interview, although there are storylines which come to the surface. And, which get the attention of God.
It should be said that God is played by the veteran actor, David Strathairn, a man of serious demeanour, intelligent and articulate, a credible incarnation for God in the contemporary world. The interviewer is played by the Australian actor, Brenton Thwaites, eager to score an interview with God, an exclusive for his publication, ready to front up and asked the questions, but frequently thrown off balance when God returns the questions.
Thwaites plays journalist, Paul, who has been on an interview mission in Afghanistan and is seen initially returning on the plane with coffins of military draped in the American flag. He has experienced some of the trauma on the frontline, making him sympathetic to post-traumatic stress disorder, reaching out to help some of the soldiers who have returned home.
He is married, but immediately there is tension in the apartment. Interesting for the audience, the screenplay has been written in such a way that would lead the audience to lay the blame for potential breakup with Paul rather than his wife. It does not quite work out that way. The marriage situation surfaces throughout the film, Paul trying to contact his wife, she busy and not answering her phone, an intervention by his sister-in-law – and some challenging interventions by God.
But, the core of the screenplay consists of the three interview sessions. Paul, earnest, riding his bike around New York City, meets God first of all in a park, their sitting on park benches. Later, they will meet on the stage in an empty theatre. And, finally, in an office in a high-rise building.
The questions raised are those which are expected, which the audience themselves might raise were they to have an interview with God. Actually, God is more skilled at asking questions of Paul than Paul is of God. And, despite his concern about Paul and his life, God is able to keep his cool.
One of the features of the film is the range of clever lines, arresting religious quips, thoughtful aphorisms. Some audiences may find the interview sessions heavy and demanding. They might work better as an audiobook where attention is on the words and expressions rather than focusing on the characters and their reactions during the interviews. To that extent, many audiences might find there is too much talk for them to deal with.
Some examples: faith is not a goal, it’s a process; concerning the question why bad things happen to good people, Paul notes that God could be considered a “Cosmic Killjoy”; life is not an audition for the afterlife; most people only notice bad things when they happen to them; some people go through life feeling that they are judged every day by God.
There is an interesting discussion about the Ten Commandments, God noting that in the Gospels, Jesus quotes only six, those focusing on our dealings with our neighbours, not reiterating the commandments about God (and God adds there aren’t many polytheists around these days). Ultimately, the challenge to Paul is not so much the theological nor the philosophical but to look at his own life, to look at the command of love, to see whether humans can overcome the bad things, planting of crops for food, psychological assistance for war veterans, marriages being saved. A final theme is forgiveness.
JOURNEY BEYOND FEAR
Australia, 2018, 100 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Robin Hughan.
"How many Afghan families have we met? Probably never in Afghanistan itself! But what about in other countries? What about in Australia?
Documentary filmmaker, Robyn Hughan has had a long interest in the plight of refugees, especially to Australia. Her documentary, A Nun’s New Habit, stems from her contact with many refugees and the families, her going to Woomera and the exploration of life in detention centres, her contact with a Good Samaritan sister, Carmel Wauchope and her work with the detainees.
Journey Beyond Fear is a more ambitious project. Robyn Hughan, with cinematographer and co-producer, Steve Warne, have spent almost 7 years on this film. While it is a documentary, 99 minutes, it also plays as a humane narrative, inviting and drawing audiences into the life of this family, mother and father and three daughters.
There is no voice-over commentary. Rather, the film relies on the vitality of the personalities of the family, Bismilla and Fatima, the parents, and the three daughters, Zahra, Zeinab and a little girl under ten.
With contemporary news footage, especially from the late 90s, Afghan television and Al Jazeera, the audience learns that the family are victims of a massacre in 1998. While there are violent scenes, there are also glimpses, challenging our responses, of the Taliban harshly beating women.
The family were able to move through Pakistan into Iran where they lived for the best part of 12 years, finding it difficult to settle, the children not being able to be educated, a hard life. This meant that they moved on to Malaysia where this film opens in 2011. It then tracks the family’s life in Malaysia for the next four years. It is hard for Australian audiences and audiences from more comfortable Western countries to appreciate what it is like for a family to be uprooted, to be unsettled, on the list with the United Nations for migration to another country but having to wait, year after year, for any news of progress.
The director had access to the family over these years and filmed them in all kinds of circumstances so that we can feel that we are part of the family - older audiences appreciating the pressures on the parents, younger audiences, especially teenage audiences, able to empathise with the girls, perhaps wondering how they might react in parallel circumstances.
In fact, the strong personality of the oldest daughter, Zahra, begins to dominate the story. At first, she is an enthusiastic girl, especially about the possibilities for education. She excels at a special school for Afghan refugees. However, her father earns his meagre keep with 18 hours a day of bread baking with the daughters on bicycles delivering to hard-won customers, which means that Zahra has to find work, sometimes in the stores at an affluent mall, even selling men’s underwear, but the proprietors of the stores cannot be held accountable and are reluctant to pay her properly.
As the years progress, she grows older, misses out on education, has passing jobs, she is seen as saying she has become tired of life. At one stage, she does contemplate going up onto the roof and jumping. It is sad to see how a vibrant young girl in her mid teens can become so depressed. Her younger sister keeps a calmer approach while the little sister, still under 10, loves to dance, is something of a roly-poly live wire in the family.
And all the time we are seeing the mother and father, he a genial man, having learnt some English, making the bread but regretting he does not have more time for his family, she a rather extroverted and exuberant woman who has a zest for life.
Because of the title, we know where the drama is leading. In fact, so powerful is the presentation of the years without hope and then the sudden emerging of the possibilities of getting visas and air tickets for Australia (which also have their brief but anguishing delays), we could feel that the film will end with the family arriving in Melbourne.
But, as the title suggests, the journey goes beyond fear and we have a need to see where the journey ends as well as where it leads to.
We see the refugees arriving, welcomed, meeting up with fellow refugees, assisted by locals. The big prospect is the girls actually going to school, getting their uniforms, the discussions whether the girls will wear the scarf or not (Zahra not wearing it, like her mother, but Zeinab opting to wear it). Actually, the film shows pretty well how comfortable life can be in Melbourne. Then there are glimpses almost a year on, then almost 2 years on, the girls and their achievement, the father getting a job, the mother learning English, the family saying that have no home now in Afghanistan. Australia is their home.
While there is some information at the end of the film about the plight of refugees and how few actually are settled, this is not a polemical film. Although it shows so many difficulties, the potential for despair, it is a humane look at a family, lively, colourful, hoping for a new life and actually finding it.
Audiences from countries hosting refugees often know about this from television news, Facebook entries, even perhaps newspapers, but they don’t always have direct
contact. This film could serve as a kind of bridge towards involvement with refugees, their coming, their staying, their continuing lives."
UK, 2017, 107 minutes, Colour.
Sam Claflin, Paul Bettany, Stephen Graham, Asa Butterfield, Tom Sturridge, Toby Jones.
Directed by Saul Dibb.
Journey’s End was first performed on the London stage in 1928, 10 years after the events that it portrayed, six days in the trenches in March, 1918.
The play was written by R.C.Sheriff who also novelised the play with Vernon Bartlett. In fact, a film version of the play was made in 1930, directed by James to 6 who had directed the play on stage (with Laurence Olivier in the central role – but who was not available for the film version). Whale was to go on to make Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, Bride of Frankenstein, Showboat.
This version comes almost 80 years after the play. The occasion is the centenary of the last year of World War I, once again the events being in March 1918, the expected assault by the Germans in northern France and its being reversed by the Allied troops, leading to the Armistice of November 11, 1918.
There have been a number of striking films about World War I, the psychological trauma effect in King and Country and Regeneration, the incompetency of the authorities in Paths of Glory, the trenches in Turkey in Gallipoli and The Water Diviner, and the Oscar-winning film that came out in the same year as the original Journey’s End, All Quiet on the Western Front.
As regards the portrayal of life in the trenches, this film can take an honourable place. While the opening takes place in San Quentin, in northern France, the British troops at an inn, their assembling and marching towards the trenches (“We’re Here because We’re Here”), going to the one six days, the allotted period for a squad to remain in the trenches before being replaced.
The production design for the trenches is quite powerful, the soldiers walking in the mud and slush, the height of the walls, some of the wood rotting after several years, designed to protect the men from snipers, the paths, the beds and bunks, the officers’ mess and kitchen. The audience is immersed in the trenches along with the men.
This film focuses on a group of officers although the men are seen assembled and, eventually, a squad of ordinary soldiers have to go over the top on a mission to capture a German soldier from their trenches in order to interrogate him and get information about the expected German assault.
We are introduced to a genial older officer, Osborne, who explains to the new recruit, Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), just come from school, asking his uncle, a general, to be assigned to the squad of the prefect that he admired at school, that most of the men call him Uncle. He is played very sympathetically by Paul Bettany – a listener, a man who can calm situations. However, the central character whom we have already seen marching at the head of his men out of the village is Stanhope, three years on service in France, brooding, the victim of wear and tear and responsibility, drinking heavily. He is dismayed that Raleigh, whose sister he had courted, should come and be a witness to his deterioration. Sam Claflin gives a powerful performance.
There are some intense scenes with Stanhope and his clashes with Raleigh, his demands on a fearful officer, Hibbard (Tom Sturridge), being supported by Osborne. However, there is some real light relief for the audience as well as the officers, including Stanhope, with the ever-ready cook, coping with the supplies (mysterious couplets and tins of pineapple which actually contain apricots), a likeable performance by Toby Jones.
The screenplay contains a great deal of the dialogue from the play and the 1930s film version (which is far more talkative and runs longer than this version). But, the action does come, Osborne and Raleigh chosen to go over the top to capture the German, heavy fire, heavy casualties though mission accomplished.
While there is a moment of peace as the audience sees Raleigh’s sister at home reading his complimentary letter about Stanhope, the final image is aerial, over the devastation and destruction of the trenches, the information about the German advance, its being repelled, the memory of the horrifying statistics of so many millions, allies and Germans, killed during World War II.
Direction is by Saul Dibb who made the entertaining historical film, The Duchess as well as a gritty story of East London, Bullet Boy.
THE OLD MAN & THE GUN
US, 2018, 92 minutes, Colour.
Robert Redford, Sissy Spacek, Casey Affleck, Tika Sumpter, Danny Glover, Tom Waits, Keith Carradine, Elisabeth Moss., Isiah Whitlock Jr, John David Washington.
Directed by David Lowery.
This film was billed as Robert Redford’s last film appearance. In many ways, it is a pleasant swansong (but, one hopes, not necessarily his last film).
Redford is in his early 80s, his face lined, but his basic handsome presence is strong, a genial smile. In fact, this is very much part of his character. Almost immediately we see him, hat and suit, moustache, briefcase, going into a bank and the audience observing at a little distance, an encounter which leads to him walking out of the bank, his briefcase full of money, his driving away. Added to that, he sees a woman trying to fix her truck on the side of the road, stops to help, admits to having little expertise, but he certainly evades any pursuit and gives the woman a lift.
She is Jewel, played with great charm and empathy by Sissy Spacek, a widow, owning some property and tending a stable of horses.
Redford, claiming that his name is Bob, tells Jewel the truth but then backtracks. However, agreeably, they share phone numbers – and, as the audience would hope, they keep in touch, visits, going to diners, his sketching her horses, visiting her home and the stable.
So, who is this Bob? We soon see that he has two associates, played by Danny Glover and Tom Waits, who sometimes act as diversions and lookouts for robbing banks. And rob banks he does, names and dates coming up on screen, all in the latter months of 1981 as he travels across southern states from Missouri back to California. He and his friends are called the Over the Hill group. Unfortunately, we don’t see as much as we would like of Danny Glover and Tom Waits.
And the police? We are introduced to a rather frazzled detective, John Hunt, played by Casey Affleck, on his 40th birthday, his friends giving him a one candle’s cupcake, his wife and children offering him a cake breakfast after his night shift. Thinking of retiring, he is given the case of the gentleman bank robber as people are prone to call him, praising his presence, his charm, his having a gun but not using it, nice threats… And reassuring an upset teller on her first day at the bank.
John Hunt collects boxes of documents, interviews a range of people, builds up something of a picture. He also appears on television discussing the case – and is seen by Bob. There is an amusing sequence where John goes out to celebrate with his wife and Bob and Jewel are also at this restaurant, Bob going into the restrooms to have an ironic and challenging conversation with John.
The police get a name and an identity. His real name is Forrest Tucker. He has been in and out of jail since he was 13 – and has escaped 16 times (and there is an entertaining visual collage of these escapes, even using some footage of Robert Redford in the 1966 thriller, The Chase, and his finally building a small boat to escape from Alcatraz!).
Will he be caught? Will Jewel find out the truth? If he goes to jail will he try a 17th escape attempt?
What we do know is that Forrest is actually incorrigible, not wanting to harm anyone, even willing to pay Jewels mortgage unbeknownst to her, but finding the robberies exhilarating, the driving escapes adrenaline-pumping – and that while robbing banks and escaping he knows that he is alive, is living.
But, strange to say, a film about a bank robber is generally very nice.
A PRAYER BEFORE DAWN
UK, 2017, 116 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Jean- Stephane Sauvaire.
Tough, hard tough, hardest-tough. This is true of the film itself, of its central character, Billy Moore, of the prison situations, physically and emotionally. And it is certainly tough for the audience to watch. Words that come to mind include visceral, even gut-wrenching.
Joe Cole, in a convincing performance, plays a young Englishman abroad, based in Thailand, a boxer, practising several forms of kickboxing. In the opening bout that we see, after careful preparation and oiling, he loses the fight, loses control and bashes his opponent. We see as well that he relies on drugs for the boost in the ring and is an addict.
He is taken in by the police and sent to prison. Audiences will have seen films about drug dealers and imprisonment in such countries as Indonesia and Malaysia. The Thai prisons that we see here (filmed in Thailand and in the Philippines, Cebu) are places audiences would never want to find themselves in. The questioning and examination at entry are the usual, but rougher. Because of the heat, the prisoners wear shorts – which enables the audience, perhaps rather astonished at the site, to see so many men and so many tattoos, all over torsos, backs, necks, even faces and scalps, and not just random tattoos but carefully constructed designs and colours.
Washing and toilet facilities are minimum. The prisoners sleep on rugs or on the ground, piled together. And there is a general air of hostility of the prisoners amongst themselves. And Billy is the only Westerner, white Westerner in the prison.
The audience shares Billy’s humiliation and endurance – although one of the guards does supply some drugs for him, forcing him to bash some Muslim prisoners on his behalf. With a knife at his throat, Billy is forced to watch a brutal sexual assault. There is no sign of any fulfilment of the title, although there are moments when there are some rituals of prayer and a statue of the Buddha in the prison yard.
There are some moments of lightness with the arrival of prisoner “lady boys” who staff the canteen in the prison, especially one Billy befriends who is called Fame.
It is the boxing which enables Billy to move toward some kind of redemption. He trains, wins the approval of the coach, fights hard, although a doctor examines him and tells him that his spleen is ruptured, he could bleed to death in fights and his whole system has been wrecked by drugs and alcohol. But, one of the authorities is impressed by him and suggests he trains for an inter-prison competition.
There is a final fight, perhaps in the Rocky-vein, but more unexpected and far less triumphant.
A spoiler warning. This reviewer saw the film not knowing that it was based on a memoir – so, it is surprising to find that Billy Moore has transformed himself, that there really was something of a prayer before the dawn, that he has devoted his life to rehabilitation as well as helping others in similar situations. (A final scene has Billy’s father visiting him in Thailand – and then the title over the picture of the father indicating that this is Billy Moore himself.)
US, 2018, 98 minutes, Colour.
Annette Bening, Saoirse Ronan, Corey Stoll, Brian Dennehy, Elisabeth Moss, Billy Howell, Jon Tenney, Michael Zegen, Mare Winningham, Glenn Fleshler.
Directed by Michael Mayer.
Anton Chekhov is considered a great Russian playwright, a great world playwright. There are continued performances of his Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull. 50 years ago Sidney Lumet directed a film version of The Seagull with Simone Signoret as the ageing actress, James Mason as her lover and the young Vanessa Redgrave as the aspiring actress.
Chekhov’s pre-Revolution world is rather enclosed, the characters often feeling stifled and/or bored – as if a revolution, which Chekhov did not see, was necessary to bring these characters to real life.
One of the difficulties for an audience is that it may also feel stifled, somewhat trapped in this rather artificial world. The audience needs to concentrate, be willing to empathise with the characters (not an easy task at times) to appreciate who they are and how they live. And, with so many characters on display in The Seagull, there are so many/ too many focal points, an array of a great number of characters, and their relationships are tangled.
The initial setting is 1904, the applause for actress, Irena (Annette Bening at her imperious and insensitive-to-others best, including her highly-strung son, Konstantin (Billy Howell), in a Moscow theatre and the immediate summons to go to the country estate where her brother (Brian Dennehy in a welcome appearance) is dying. Then there is a flashback to the summer, two years earlier when most of the action of the film takes place. In an interesting device, the opening several minutes are repeated exctly at the end of the film, the audience reaction to the characters so much more different now that they have got to know and like (or dislike) them.
Irina dominates the summer, narcissistic, insensitive, manipulative. Corey Stoll is Boris, the celebrated author, her lover, seemingly a strong character but his later being criticised as spineless, being able to bend in all directions. Konstantin is moody, disdains popular theatre, writes a play which, at best, might be called poetic, and the young neighbour, Nina (Saoirse Ronan) performs before his mother’s loud and sarcastic comments causing him to stop the performance.
Some of the supporting characters do arouse the interest, especially Elisabeth Moss as Marsha, daughter of the maid, Polina (Mare Willingham), infatuated with Konstantin, wearing black because she is in mourning for her life, courted by the teacher who insists on mentioning, always, how hard his work is and with such little remuneration. Jon Tenney as the local doctor, relied on by most of the characters, offering advice, is always on hand.
So, if an audience is attuned to the plays of Chekhov, there is much to commend (although for some ears, somewhat disconcerting to find these early 20th century Russians or talking with strong American accents). If an audience is not attuned, better to find an alternative insight into pre--revolutionary Russia.
UK, 2018, 99 minutes, Colour.
Directed by David Fairhead, Ant Palmer.
A documentary tribute to the plane which is credited with winning the Battle of Britain and contributing to the Allied victory in World War II.
The film opens and closes with beautiful sequences of the Spitfire and flight, over the British countryside, through the clouds, a rather rapturous framework for this documentary.
There is some history of the Spitfire, the work of R.J.Mitchell, aircraft designer with vision, the team of experts who worked with him developing aircraft during the 1920s and 1930s. There are some interesting clips from the 1943 feature film about Mitchell, The First of the Few, with Leslie Howard (called Spitfire in the US). The Spitfire emerged around 1937, with continual work on it until it entered the war, especially with the Battle of Britain. In fact, there were 24 machs of the Spitfire, the film touching on these towards the end, quite extraordinary developments for combating the German aircraft. The Spitfire was withdrawn from service in 1957 with the emergence of planes, jets.
Many of those commenting throughout the film praise the ingenuity and innovation of the Spitfire, praising it as the most beautiful of planes. One man mentions that it is the most precious of flying machines except for the spacecraft which brought Armstrong and the astronauts back from the moon. There were 22,000 Spitfires produced.
There is language about the Spitfire as an icon, comment that the aura about the Spitfire was developed after the end of the war. In many ways this is a eulogy of the Spitfire, testimonies of the flyers, many clips from contemporary footage from World War II.
There is also an outline of the role of the Spitfire during World War II, the initial flights, conflict with the Germans and their aerial developments, a focus particularly on the battle for Malta, the role of the Spitfires on D-Day?.
And the story is told by quite a number of veterans, all of them worth listening to, interesting and often genial personalities, their love of flying, the exhilaration of flying the Spitfires, some detailed description of confrontations in the air, pursuits, bombings. And some of the memoirs of the Flyers are very vivid, particularly a story about flying to Malta from Gibraltar, losing the lead plane, the pilot not knowing where he was and making the decision to fly back to Gibraltar with the risk of the Allied guns misinterpreting his presence. There is a tribute to the saving of Malta. There are also stories about the night before D-Day?, the number of flights over the channel and back on 6 June 1944, the bombings and fears about the Germans having a secret weapon.
While the film is particularly male-oriented, there is a strong presence of women in this documentary, some of the women who flew planes, including the hundred-year-old Mary Ellis who flew over 400 planes to British airfields, who inscribed her name on one of them – and is invited to write her name over 70 years later on the same plane. There are also the women who are expert in tracking the flights, helping in the war rooms with the maps and indicating the planes and their presence.
The narration is by actor, Charles Dance, rather solemn for the occasion, at times a touch sepulchral.
For those who love planes, an obvious must. For those who are not planespotters, nevertheless a very interesting documentary. For those who have a passion about World War II, the role of Britain, touches of nostalgia and patriotism, they won’t be disappointed.
A STAR IS BORN
US, 2018, 135 minutes, Colour.
Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, Rafi Gavron, Anthony Ramos, Dave Chappelle, Alec Baldwin, Marlon Williams, Ron Rifkin, Barry Shabaka Henley.
Directed by Bradley Cooper.
Given the film history of this story, it must be one of the most American archetypal stories, a theme of rise and fall. In that way, it is universal and, in terms of film versions, it has been popular since the 1930s. The first version in 1932 was What Price Hollywood (directed by George Cukor who also directed the 1954. The first A Star is Born featured Fredric March and Janet Gaynor was in 1937, the Judy Garland- James Mason version in 1954, Barbra Streisand- Kris Kristofferson version in 1976 and, for some reason, nothing in the 1990s, a 40 year gap until this version.
The buzz about the film has been, of course, about the appearance of Lady Gaga in her first dramatic performance as a lead. (She has appeared on small roles in a number of movies as well as television performances.) And, the first thing that most have commented on is how well she has been cast, how well she performs, her talent for acting, her ability at singing and capturing an audience – and with many of the songs written by her, some in collaboration with Bradley Cooper.
And, Bradley Cooper gives a persuasive performance. He is a rock star, seen performing, engaging an audience, but going off with his chauffeur to find a bar to drink. He finds himself in a drag queen bar but, the performers encourage a friend, Ally (Lady Gaga) to sing. She has ambitions but she works, unsatisfactorily, in a diner, is encouraged by her father who likes to tell people that he has been very favourably compared to Frank Sinatra. She does an Edith Piaf song, La Vie en Rose, impressing the audience and drawing the attention of Jackson Mayne (Cooper) who is drawn to her. Cooper has a pleasing screen presence, an engaging smile, and a credibility that he would be attracted to this singer.
And he is, inviting her to fly in his plane to a performance, arranging her music and lyrics, singing them and inviting her to join him on stage. It is the beginning of her rise, his fall.
While Ally has some confidence, she is conscious of her appearance, appearing only in controlled situations. But, she is gradually transformed, her songs, her vocal talent, appearance and clothes. She is approached by an ambitious British producer. She makes a record. She rehearses with dances. She appears on Saturday Night Live with Alec Baldwin.
And, she is in love and marries Jackson.
The characters in the background remind us of where Ally and Jack have come from. Andrew Dice Clay plays her enthusiastic father, a manager of a car fleet with his driver pals. Jack is supported by his older brother, Bob (Sam Elliot). What might have been idyllic is always threatened by Jack’s drinking. Drink, he does, leading to outbursts, clashes with his brother, hurtful attitudes and words towards Ally.
Where can it end? Rise and fall?
One of the features of A Star is Born that will appeal to many audiences (though some may be living in their past preferred music tastes) is the music. The film does not stint on the music, the songs – an achievement for the stars, their collaboration in the writing and composing and Bradley Cooper proving himself as a singer, matching Lady Gaga.
Italy/US, 2018, 152 minutes, Colour.
Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Doris Hick, Malgorzaata Bela, Chloe Grace Moretz, Angela Winkler, Jessica Batut, Elena Fokina, Mia Goth, Clementine Houdart, Ingrid Caven, Sylvie Testud.
Directed by Luca Guadagnino.
This is a remake, a re-interpretation (and then some, to say the least) of the 1977 horror-thriller directed by Dario Argento. It is considered something of a classic, now especially so in the mind and memory of Italian director Luca Guadagnino (I am Woman, A Bigger Splash, Call Me by Your Name).
Whether Guadagnino has created a new classic is not so certain. While there have been some admirers, many who have written comments on this version have felt disappointed in comparison with the original, or have been bewildered, or thought it was just so much rubbish – some even suspecting that the director might have appeared after the final credits to jokingly tell us that it was all a hoax!
The original was made in 1977 and Guadagnino and his cowriter, David Kajganich (whose following film was the remake of Stephen King’s Pet Semetery), have decided that they would like to make many references to what was happening in Germany and Berlin at that time, where the old and the new Suspiria have been set, memories of World War II, memories of camps and betrayals, references to terrorism and the Baader-Meinhoff? group, an RAF crisis. While this is significant, the references seem to be merely allusions, suggestions, verbal and visual, rather than explorations of the theme and connections to the characters and actions. (Although, there is an insertion later in the film where the psychiatrist meets his long-lost love whom he had betrayed – and is to be punished; and this interlude provides an opportunity for a cameo appearance by Jessica Harper, the original Susie).
Since the plot is about a coven of witches, audiences certainly expect it to be weird. As weird as this?
The film opens, somewhat frantically, with a dancer from an Academy seeking psychological help, mentally disintegrating before our eyes, Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz). And then, a new dancer arrives from Ohio, Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson after her 50 Shades films). She is ambitious. She is welcomed. There are memories of her growing among the Amish in Ohio. She makes friends with the other dancers, finds accommodation, shows instantly that she has danced talent. There are complications with her fellow dancer, Sarah (Mia Goth).
Dancing is important to the film. Those who love modern dance, contemporary choreography, may well be delighted by the very long sequences of dance, impressionistic, a work called Volk (‘ People’). There is a frantic score accompanying the dance, dance until one collapses…
And the staff at the dance Academy (a collection of significant European actresses) look and act weirdly (understatement). When it emerges that they are a coven of witches, that the head is a woman called Madame Markos, that there is some rivalry with the teacher who is held on a pedestal by the students, Madame Blanc. So, what is the will of the witches? What did they want with Patricia, to become part of the coven, the discovery of secret powers? What do they want with Susie – and what does she want?
In the performance of Volk, Susie collapses – and some transformation begins, a revelation of the witches, bizarre confrontations and deaths, the visualising of Madame Markos (very ugly fleshy creation) contrasting with the austere beauty of Madame Blanc.
It might be just as well that that there are no quizzes as audiences leave the cinema after 2 ½ hours to test whether they could explain the plot, characters, themes. Most would probably fail.
So, a step in the career of Luca Guadagnino, a reinterpretation of Dario Argento, a display of contemporary dance, an imagining of later 20th century witches (and their depiction and delineation seems more than a little misogynistic).
And the most amazing thing about the film is the presence of Tilda Swinton, extraordinary has always, and the revelation after the event that the make-up artists have been at work because she is also the professor – and she is also Madame Markos.
US, 2018, 112 minutes, Colour.
Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Scott Haze, Reid Scott, Jenny Slate, Melora Walters, Woody Harrelson.
Directed by Ruben Fleischer.
If The Predator were persuaded to go to the movies, then Venom would be an obvious recommendation. In fact, the hopes and ambitions of The Predator are fulfilled in Venom. The Predator and fellow aliens were involved in coming to earth, taking of the best qualities of humans, and experience of symbiosis. Symbiosis is to the fore in Venom but not quite in a way that was expected – who would have thought an alien and a human coexisting, dialoguing with each other, becoming a kind of superhero and avenger of evil?
This indication of the tone and style of Venom shows that it is both serious in its themes and somewhat humorous in its style.
Tom Hardy looks as if he is enjoying himself in the role of Eddie Brock, a television journalist in San Francisco, high ratings, living with Anne, a legal expert, and, played by Michelle Williams. However, he is ambitious, and a special target is Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) a self-made entrepreneur whose spaceship was seen at the beginning of the film, exploding, crash landing in Malaysia, and some of the samples, alien samples, set free during the crash (and taking over one of the scientists, then an old woman at the airport, the alien moving from human to human (and a dog or two), living within them and giving them heightened powers.
One of Carlton Drake’s assistants, Dr Skirth (Jenny Slate) has some conscience issues and approaches Eddie, taking him to the plant, his taking incriminating photos, trying to help one of the experimental victims and, of course, being infected himself. (Actually, he refers to having a parasite but Venom really dislikes the word!).
It is not difficult to foretell the directions in which the screenplay will go. Michelle Williams must have been pleased to have the opportunity to have the parasite/alien inside the and take her over. Her new boyfriend, Dan (Reid Scott) is a surgeon and does his best to help Eddie.
Car chases, car crashes, building up to a confrontation between Carlton Drake and Eddie in alien monstrous form, and the realisation that Venom really likes being one with Eddie and that they have an evil-avenging career before them (though Venom is prone to like eating antagonists). And then, early in the final credits, Eddie visits a jail and who should be there but Woody Harrelson… So, more venom/Venom.
WAJIB. (THE WEDDING INVITATION)
Israel/Palestine, 96 minutes, Colour.
Mohammed Bakri, Saleh Bakri.
Directed by Annemarie Jacir.
Well, this is one way to spend a day – a father and son driving around Nazareth delivering invitations to a wedding to family, friends, acquaintances.
While there are some comically cheerful sequences, the underlying themes of Wajib are very serious.
The setting is very important. The focus is on a family living in Nazareth, an Arab city in Israel. For those who have a gospel-image of Nazareth, and have never been there, it might be quite a surprise to see it as a contemporary city, the streets and the constant traffic, the range of buildings, the hills (and the number of houses with many images of Mary who, after all, came from there).
The film is a serious reminder of the difficulties for Arabs living in Nazareth – which are less considerable than for the who live in the occupied territories. Nevertheless, the point is made that there are limitations on the freedoms of the Arabs, the schools and staff as well as curricula are kept under surveillance by officials, some issues prohibited, that some occupations are not open to Arabs, the instance mentioned here being pilots. And, while many aspects of life are comfortable enough, the Arabs feel that they are second-class citizens.
The drama highlighting these perspectives involves father and son. The daughter and sister is about to be married, preparations are underway, there is even a side visit to the dress shop where the young woman is trying out a variety of dresses. The father has been a teacher in a local school and has ambitions to be promoted to headmaster. The son, on the other hand, had something of a controversial background when he was growing up, strong political stances through a cinema club, the father feeling that it was best for his son to move out of Israel. The son now lives in Italy, works as an architect, lives with his companion whose father is a former PLO member. The son has no desire to come back to live in Israel.
In fact, the criticisms come through the dialogue given to the son. There is a powerful sequence of verbal and emotional clashes, especially towards the end when both men get out of their car and there is a strong confrontation, especially on the occasion of the father wanting to invite the Jewish representative whom he sees as his friend but In the son denounces as a spy, over the years reporting activities to the Israeli authorities, controlling education.
Along the way, as father and son drive around the city side delivering the invitations, there are quite a number of pleasing vignettes, visits to family homes, discussions about family matters, some socialising, the son having a beer with an old friend who is satisfied living in Nazareth…
The action takes place only over the daylight hours of one day so it is really a drama of raising the issues – but, with a somewhat gentle ending, not entirely a resolution, but some hope, if not for Nazareth, for the father and son and their relationship.
US, 2018, 104 minutes, Colour.
Cary Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ed Oxenbould, Bill Camp.
Directed by Paul Dano.
Wildlife, as a title, does not communicate the mood and meaning of this impressive, rather small-scale, drama. The title comes from a novel of 1990 by Pulitzer-Prize-winning? author, Richard Ford. While the novel was published in 1990, the setting for walk and film is 1960, outback Montana.
This is a story of a family, beginning very cheerfully, father and son, Jerry (a sympathetic Jake Gyllenhaal, even when he is exasperating), Jenny (a powerful performance by Cary Mulligan) and son, Joe (Australian Ben Oxenbould through whose eyes we see the action). Jerry and Joe pass and kick the football, Jenny prepares the meal, Jerry goes off to work at a golf club, Joe going to help him.
Jerry is fired. To his surprise and dismay, the reason given is the that he is too friendly with the players at the club. He thinks about getting a job, mopes around, sits in his car, stands on his pride when the club offers him his job back. Jerry is stuck in that American (universal) image of what it is to be a man, stand his ground, and his living, be reliable. To Jenny’s surprise and upset, and to audience surprise, he volunteers to go out into the mountains to fight the fires whose smoke the audience has seen hovering in the background.
Jerry does not think there will be a crisis. However, Jenny is quite upset, his action and her challenging him about it beginning to undermine the years together, reminding her of the vitality she had when she was young. Joe, who doesn’t say much but whose character is communicated most effectively by Ben Oxenbould’s body language, facial expressions (and lack of them), alert eyes, does not want his father to leave. He has told his father that he is no good at football. However, he does get a job at the photo studio in the town and becomes dependable and expert. He also befriends a young girl, a student from school.
Joe then has to watch the deterioration of his mother, the positive about her getting a job coaching swimming, the negative about her pretending to get a job at a car sales, benefiting by her coaching the owner, an older man his wife has left him, in swimming. Audience tension will be aggravated by what Jenny says and does, dressing up glamorously, lying to Joe, taking him to dinner at the house of the businessman – and the consequences. Enormous pressure on a 14-year-old boy who loves his mother and his father.
Jerry returns from the fires expecting everything to be as it was. It isn’t, provoking Jerry to act irresponsibly. Where can the drama go? Can the parents rediscover their love? What can Joe do?
The ending is left open to the audience, their understanding and appreciating of each of the characters. However, there is a very fine symbol for the end of the film, not closure of the story – it involves Joe at his work at the photographers, a photo.
Ben Oxenbould and director Paul Dano resemble each other physically. Dano has often performed in melancholy roles (Little Miss Sunshine, Pierre in War and Peace) and brings a sense of melancholy to this screenplay which is written with his partner, Zoe Kazan. They had previously co-written another telling small drama, Ruby Sparks.