SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS, OCTOBER 2009
AWAY WE GO
BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL, NEW ORLEANS
CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY
CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS
INVENTION OF LYING, The
JULIE & JULIA
LE DONK & SKOR-ZAY-ZEE
LIFE DURING WARTIME
(US, 2009, d. Greg Mottola)
Adventureland is a rundown entertainment park in Pittsburgh. The film is not really about Adventureland. It is the location where most of the characters work and provides a setting for a group of older teenagers sorting out their lives (and making mistakes, of course).
The film was written by director Greg Mottola (The Daytrippers, Superbad) and is set in 1987 – it has more than a few autobiographical references.
Jesse Eisenberg plays James, a bemused, intelligent, confused adolescent (as he has done so often, to good effect, in films like Rodger Dodger, Cursed, The Squid and the Whale). He has an entry to Columbia University but his father has fallen on hard financial times and the family doesn't have enough money. His summer trip to Europe is off and he has to get a job, unqualified, and finishes up on the games stands at Adventureland, not on the rides which he would like. Bill Hader plays the eccentric owner of the park.
A rather morose girl at the neighbouring stand, Em, attracts his attention (Twilight's Kristen Stewart) and she helps him in a difficulty with aggressive unsatisfied customers. A principled young man concerning depth of relationships, he becomes friends with her, confides in her and gradually realises that he has fallen in love with her. Not that easy. Unbeknownst to him, she is in a relationship with the park's married handyman (Ryan Reynolds). There is also the park's glamorous attendant who makes a minor play for James. Crises.
Well played, with more realistic characters than so many in current films about teenagers and coming of age.
AWAY WE GO
(US, 2009, d. Sam Mendes)
A very cheerfully serious film. Those who know the films of Sam Mendes may be surprised to see one of his films described as cheerful. When one thinks of American Beauty, Road to Perdition and Revolutionary Road, happiness is not the firs thought that comes to mind. Mendes has been something of a chronicler of American suburbia, the lives of families and, so often, their quiet despair.
This time he focuses on a young couple (unmarried, he is for marriage, she is not). They are in their 30s, happy with each other, but feeling that they have not got to grips with their lives and where they are going. When Verona (a more serious Maya Rudolph) becomes pregnant, she and Burt (a likeable John Krasinski), they decide to go to visit his parents (hers have died) for some support when the baby comes. The parents (Catherine O'Hara, eagerly demonstrative) and Jeff Daniels (hyperbolically optimistic) reveal that they are going to fulfil a dream and go to live in Antwerp for two years. So..., support?
Away Verona and Burt go, all over the US and even to Montreal, so see relatives and friends and to decide where they should live and what would be best for the baby. In Arizona, Verona's sister is very affirming of them both. Also in Arizona, an interlude with Verona's former boss and her morose husband, proves overwhelming. As played by Allison Janney, she is a hilarious monster, even mocking her children to their faces (alleging that it is only white noise for them!), while her husband sees evidence of the collapse of the US everywhere. Even more overwhelming is a visit to Wisconsin to a cousin and her husband (an exuberant Maggie Gylenhaal and a laid-back Josh Hamilton). They are beyond New Age, embodying every fad and trend and more – the gift of a stroller for their child is rejected because they carry their child, don't push him away from them in a stroller. But, an exasperated Burt does.
Their visit to friends in Montreal is more normal. The couple (Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey) have adopted several children but have experienced a series of miscarriages. Their melancholy thoughts on young unwanted pregnancies while older couples long for children are poignant.
This is an enjoyable road movie because of the sympathetic characters (who do commit very seriously to each other and to their baby), the often funny screenplay (by a husband and wife team who have two children of their own) and the more joyful affirmation of life values.
BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL, NEW ORLEANS
(US, 2009, d. Werner Herzog)
Put it this way: Werner Herzog directing a slick US Police thriller? After so many decades of inventively idiosyncratic film-making, a story of a corrupt New Orleans detective? Anyway, he has done it. this time his movie will be found in multiplexes.
The setting is New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, though locations and aftermath are not notably used, more in passing.
The plot is more or less the usual - a family, illegal and from Senegal, is massacred, drug dealings, underlings and kingpins; arrests, interrogations; a set-up and a successful outcome for the police. The difference is the bad lieutenant of the title - though we have seen corrupt officers before. This time it is Nicolas Cage who seems to be more mannered and ticish as he grows older. His character does have severe back pain, is on medication, becomes hooked on drugs. He is also an inveterate and unwise gambler. His girlfriend is a call girl (Eva Mendes). So, there is ample reason for the tics but it looks like he is acting rather than creating a character.
What if Herzog had been able to make it with his late Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo actor, Klaus Kinski? That would have been intense. Actually, had Val Kilmer (who plays Cage's assistant as a nasty) been cast, it might have been better, let alone Michael Shannon (who has a brief role). Shannon can do evil and mad (Bug, World Trade Center, Revolutionary Road).
Note: we interrupt this review with a confession.
(I had been writing this so far in a cinema at the Venice Film Festival where we had seen Bad Lieutenant in the morning. It is evening and a 'surprise film' is about to be shown. It is, and this is a shock, directed by Werner Herzog, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done. And, it starts as a US police thriller! However, it is a relief when, after introducing Willem Dafoe and Michael Pena going to a siege situation, it goes back to Herzog idiosyncracies, produced by David Lynch.)
Back to Bad Lieutenant.
Fans of Abel Ferrara's 1992 Bad Lieutenant with Harvey Keitel will be wondering how the (loose) remake compares. Simply, this version omits all the Catholic images and themes, the nun, the crucifix, the lieutenant's hallucination of Jesus in the Church and his Munchian scream of despair. So, Ferrara's film still stands, with its 'out of the depths' desperation, as does Harvey Keitel's powerful performance.
This new version is a cry out of the depths and there seems to be some redemption (at the opening the lieutenant is not entirely irredeemable). Other characters rather cosily find some redemption but is that just a cynical giggle from Cage at the end?
(US, 2006, d. James Keach)
The principal reason for the release of this serious comedy in 2009 is the success of Star Trek and Chris Pine's effective performance as the young Captain Kirk. He acquits himself reasonably in this film which has its moments (and has its other moments!).
Pine plays Danny, a young man who is blind – and has been teased by his older brother since they were children. He has a genial, large Italian father and a worrying mother. There is also a little sister.
There are moments of teen sex comedy, a touch raucous, especially as the older brother now owns a limousine service and getting extra money for allowing prostitutes to use it for their clients. Eddie Kaye Thomas plays Larry, the brother, in much the way he did in the American Pie films.
On the serious side, while Danny is looking for a deeper relationship and the dates that his brother arranges are disastrous, he has the opportunity to undergo some experimental surgery to insert a chip which could activate the brain to see, at least, black and white outlines. He is surly towards a receptionist at the doctor's but soon becomes friends with her – her family is from India and have arranged a marriage for her and she has not the heart to tell Danny.
The surgery and the aftermath are presented seriously and the film ends with touches of the romantic screwball comedy. Slightly better than the usual.
CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY
(US, 2009, d. Michael Moore)
Michael Moore seems to enjoy the status of a sign of contradiction, not only in the world of documentaries but in his capacity for challenge to social conditions and policies and the repercussions for government, companies and for ordinary people: American gun culture in his Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine (2002), terrorism and the Bush administration, Fahrenheit 911 (2004) and, an issue which is currently causing political division in the US, American health care, in Sicko (2007).
Now, in the aftermath of the banking scandals and the credit crunch, a look at American Capitalism and its consequences – not only for Americans but for all of us.
It is worth saying that Michael Moore is less abrasive than he has been in other films. Not less critical.
His films are often criticised for being partisan with the implication that documentary is meant to be objective. This is not the case in even the most 'objective' of films. There is always the point of view of the film-makers and what they include and what they omit, let alone the angles at which they photograph. So, Moore's kind of documentary, a legitimate genre, is polemic. He likes to provoke – and not without reason. When there was criticism of bias in Fahrenheit 911, it seemed that even if only half of what he included in the film was true, then that was extremely alarming.
The title of the present film is heavily ironic – except that Americans have long been in love with Capitalism, especially as the contrary to Socialism and, especially, Communism. Moore takes us back through American history and the developments of capitalism in the land of opportunity. He then focuses on particular individuals, companies and the exploitative money-making in their ventures.
Coming to 2008, he has quite an amount of material, especially but not exclusively, on the banks and the reckless gambling with money, hedge funds, mortgage deals and the duping of innocent (and often naïve) ordinary people with extra interest rates. As always, Moore makes his case emotionally, humorously and personally (with visits to Flint, Michigan, where he comes from and excerpts from his 1989 documentary about General Motors, Roger and Me, which now seems more prophetic than would ever have been thought in the past).
Critics carp at Moore's stunts. But, that is what Moore enjoys. It is a weapon for a polemicist (even taping off blocks of the financial district of New York at the end of the film as a crime scene). He likes and films his being turned away from buildings while requesting to see the company bosses.
There is a great deal to think about as we watch the stories of put-upon people, the insensitive comments of the wealthy wheeler-dealers, the facts and figures of the banking collapse and the details of what the banks have been doing and risking in recent years. Bush is a target. Obama is seen as a sign of hope.
What Moore is doing in his documentary polemic is entertaining and alarming, sermonising and challenging, provoking and provoking.
Moore joked anecdotally in 2003 that during Mass on the day he was awarded the Best Documentary Oscar for Bowling for Columbine, he was distracted during the homily. This time his Catholicism is far more explicit in Capitalism, going back to explain his Catholic upbringing (with some home move clips, even with the sisters at his parochial school), mentioning that he thought about being a priest when he was young and explaining the credibility of priesthood for him through his admiration for priests who marched for social issues, including with Martin Luther King. There are also glimpses of Dan Berrigan SJ in some clips.
For testimonies about the evils in capitalism, he also goes to some clergy for interviews, to two priests from Detroit who officiated at family weddings. He also presents two bishops. An auxiliary bishop of Chicago, speaking at a Mass early in 2009 in solidarity with strikers who were sacked without pay by Republic Doors and Windows and were protesting. (After six days Bank of America decided to pay the wages owed.) He emphasised that the Church stood with them. He also talks with Emeritus Auxiliary Bishop of Detroit, Thomas Gumbleton, a noted figure for his stances and articles on war and peace issues. Moore asks the bishop what Jesus would think of Capitalism. The bishop explains how so many aspects of capitalism, especially rampant capitalism, have no place in the Gospels.
Moore can be mischievous and provocative. He brings Jesus into the film more explicitly. By using clips from Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth, he dubs a Robert Powell voice-alike which makes the point about Jesus and capitalism more humorously and tellingly. By having Jesus say outlandish capitalist opinions in his preaching and by having Jesus refuse to heal someone because of insurance difficulties and medical pre-condition, he makes his audience laugh - and, he hopes, think. By showing a scene of the way of the cross and the crucifixion, he certainly makes his point. A different use of the Jesus-figure.
Moore fans will enjoy Capitalism and feel some moral outrage. Non-fans will probably just be outraged.
CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS
(US, 2009, d. Christopher Miller and Phil Lord)
An animated 3D version of a popular children's book from the 1970s by Judi Barrett.
The characters and their environment are more stylised than realistic, differing from the usual animated films. The 3D effects work quite well.
This is the story of would-be inventor, Flint Lockwood (voiced by Bill Hader), who lives in a town that has depended on its sardine industry but has now fallen on hard times. Flint is a genial but gawky hero whose inventions (when he was a boy) include paint-on shoes, which you can't get off, and rat-birds! His best friend is Steve the Monkey.
As an adult, Flint is urged to work with his father (voiced by James Caan), who doesn't understand and can explain himself only by fishing metaphors which Flint can't get. But, he continues in his laboratory and finds success with a machine that can turn water into food – hence the weather forecasts for meatballs (but there are pancakes and spaghetti on the menu falling from the skies).
Flint becomes the town's hero. The mayor wants to exploit the situation. The media are interested, especially a young reporter, Sam Sparks (voiced by Anna Faris), who gets a crush on Flint. Other characters include the local policeman, Earl Devereaux, and his son Cal who gets into danger, as well as 'Baby Brent', the child who was the face of advertising for the sardines but is now a spoilt former celebrity
Needless to say, matters get out of hand, with deluges of food, and Flint has to find a way to set things right.
Children will probably enjoy the unusual story and Flint's eccentric ways. Adults will be amused by the characters and situations.
(UK, 2009, d.Jon Amiel)
Creation is about Charles Darwin on the occasion of the bicentenary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species.
The film does create any controversy about Evolution or Creationism. It is an elegantly made period drama, focusing more on Darwin's family life as a context for his studies and his writing. It is more personal than a film about science or religion – though it would have been a stronger film had these issues been included more than they are. While it has Thomas Huxley stating that Darwin had 'killed God' (and Huxley had an image of a very vengeful God), Emma Darwin being a devout woman and the Reverend Innes speaking of God moving in mysterious ways and not questioning him, it presupposes that there were difficulties in the Churches at the time about science and religion, especially evolution. There is no reference to Genesis in the screenplay.
Paul Bettany gives a fine reflective, rather introspective performance as Darwin. There are two glimpses of his voyage around the world on the Beagle when he was in his early 20s – one is a scene in Patagonia where Captain Fitzroy barters buttons and goods for three children and takes them to England, 'civilising' them with clothes and table manners, a picture of British assumptions about civilisation and superiority. Most of the film is set in the late 1850s at his home in Kent, his ill-health (psychosomatic?) and his seeing his loving daughter, Annie (Martha West), talking with him, criticising him, unable to accept the fact that she is dead.
The drama is not so much in whether he can write On the Origin of Species (and there are a number of sequences of him examining specimens and of writing) but, rather, in his relationship with his wife who feels alienated about how they responded to Annie's death as well as differing from him about God and evolution. Their scene of reconciliation and honesty and love after he is healed of his depression and preoccupations is very moving. Bettany is acting with his actual wife, Jennifer Connolly.
The re-creation of this small corner of Kent in Victorian England is beautifully done.
With recent discussions in the Church about the relationship between religion and science and Benedict XVI's and Vatican statements about evolution, Catholic audiences will find the film interesting, and an entertaining drama, insofar as it offers a portrait of Darwin and indications of his research and theories.
However, Creationists and those who interpret Scripture literally and fundamentalists, will be opposed to Darwin's work and may find the film too supportive of him and his theories.
THE CRIMSON WING
(US, 2009, d. Matthew Aeberhard and Leander Ward)
Unless you are an avid bird watcher or student of birds or are a devotee of nature programs on television, you probably won't know all the information that this documentary, from Disneynature, offers about flamingoes.
The photography, as one would expect, is excellent and shows the birds to beautiful advantage as well as Lake Natron in Tanzania, which is a nature marvel in itself. This reviewer has seen and been amazed at a huge gathering of flamingoes on the Namibian coast, south of Walvis Bay, so was looking forward to seeing The Crimson Wing.
One should say that the narration is rather rhetorically written rather than cutesy and may be a bit too solemn for young children's audiences who would appreciate the lesson the film offers. It is articulated slowly and clearly by radio broadcaster Mariella Frostrup.
Before the flamingoes take centre screen, the film shows the volcanic surroundings of Lake Natron, then the lake itself, a shallow lake, very salty with its own algae (which, when eaten by the flamingoes, tints their plumage). With the storms and rain, the flamingoes arrive in their thousands and settle in. They come from surrounding lakes in the Rift Valley. But the film goes on to show the fascinating change as the sun returns, quickly evaporates the shallow water with the salt crusting which floats and forms an island in the lake ten miles long.
It is here that the birds (who seem to relish flocking together in packed and jostling crowds) begin their courtship and mating. They build nests of salt where the eggs are deposited.
The film shows the young chick's emergence from the egg, bonding with its mother, being fed, trying to stand on unsteady legs and then joining the other chicks (thousands of them too).
Darwinian theory comes close to practice as predatory birds hover and follow the birds, seeking chicks to devour. Later, a rampaging cub also pursues the birds. We are shown how random birds find their legs caked in salt which solidifies, making walking difficult and leading them to be subject to prey.
The film also shows the trek of the flock from the salt island and the heat to the water and cool again before they eventually fly off, back to the lakes.
The film-makers obviously love their flamingoes, photographing them in great detail – and, at the end, unwilling to say farewell to them, repeating the whole story in summary. But, it does look very good on the big screen.
(UK, 2009, d. Oliver Parker)
At the end of the 19th century, two significant novels were published by famous authors: Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson and, five years later (1891), The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.
They both dealt with the contradictions in a man, good and evil, with self-indulgence and the attempt to avoid responsibility. For Stevenson, chemicals released the inner Dr Hyde for a life of violence and depravity, ultimately destroying Dr Jekyll, a good man who had made wrong decisions. For Wilde, the exterior of Dorian Gray does not change over the decades. He seems a respectable citizen. However, the corruption of his life gradually takes over and consumes his portrait, hidden away from anyone's gaze in his attic.
There have been many versions of Wilde's story, several in the silent era. The classic Hollywood film was made in 1945 with Hurd Hatfield and George Sanders as Lord Henry Wotton. It was filmed in black and white except for the climactic impact of the picture in colour.
Other versions for television have sometimes updated the story to the present.
Director Oliver Parker has had success with Wilde's An Ideal Husband and very mixed reactions for Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (present company not liking it at all). He also directed an update of St Trinian's and a sequel.
His Dorian Gray goes back to the 1890s, Wilde's era, and presents a rather stylised, artificial view of London affluent society. The young Dorian (Ben Barnes moving away from his performance as Prince Caspian!) fits into this world with some ease despite cruelty experienced in his past. He falls in love with Sybil Vane, an actress. However, it is Lord Henry Wotton (Colin Firth at his best) who is a charmingly malevolent mentor (using Wildean epigrams and manners) who offers Dorian a choice between good and evil. Dorian chooses evil – and discovers that his portrait painted by his devoted friend, Basil Hallward (Ben Chaplin), is absorbing the physical and moral consequences of his behaviour.
Dorian's life of depravity is rather posed and postured here, like some illustrations from Aubrey Beardsley and fin de siecle artists with whom Wilde was familiar. However, the film sets Dorian's long years of travel in the early 20th century, returning him at the beginning of World War I. We see much of 20th century technology, cameras, phones, gramophones, cars, the London Underground – and the coming of the suffragettes.
Commentators on the film note that Wilde saw Dorian as unrepentant. Here his conscience gets the better of him, especially when confronted by Sybil Vane's demented brother bent on revenge as well as encountering the very forthright daughter of Lord Henry, Emily (a vigorous Rebecca Hall).
The plot moves rather rapidly at the beginning, especially Dorian's settling into London and the painting of his portrait. Then it slows down to show Dorian's moral decline. Ben Barnes may appeal to many audiences though he is presented as a mixture of the strong character and the effete who would be at home with some of the Pre-Raphaelites?.
Not a definitive version of the novel but an interesting interpretation for our times.
(US, 2009, d. Kevin Tancharoen)
For many older audiences, Alan Parker's 1980's Fame has a hallowed place in their memories. It was a film of great exuberance, colourful, and an encouragement for young people, no matter what their background and previous opportunities in life, to discover, recognise and develop their particular gift and talent. A school for the performing arts with skilful teachers showed what was possible. The score and the title song won Oscars. A remake?
The director, Kevin Tancharoen, was born several years after the release of Fame and the television series that followed. So, a Fame for a new generation. The word used for this kind of re-make is 're-invention'. Tanacheon has credentials: directing a worldwide tour for Brittney Spears when he was only 19 and work with Madonna and Jennifer Lopez. He directed Fame, his first film, at 24.
This new fame is certainly exuberant in much the way of the original, though it does not have quite the verve of the Hot Lunch scene – this time it is a lively cafeteria music jamming which could have gone on a bit longer – and there is no dancing in the streets. That said, this time there is plenty of variety in the auditions and, using the same structure as earlier, the auditions and the four years of the course to graduation, plenty of zest. Fame is sung over the final credits and Naturi Naughton has a show-stopping sequence singing 'Out there on my own'.
This version has some reliable older actors as the teachers, including Charles S. Dutton, Bebe Neuwirth, Kelsey Grammar and Megan Mullaly. New talent is called upon for the students.
There seem to be less urgent personal problems this time with only a few glimpses of parents. The personal relationships are very much presented in a PG way which means that there is less dramatic tension than before.
However, each generation has to go through its own version of problems and do the same old learning in their new way, with disappointments, triumphs, hurts and recovery. And this is what this Fame shows.
Fame is a morale-boosting film, encouraging people not to give up – and creates a more realistic picture of hard work and discipline over years instead of instant celebrity by catching something on one' s mobile phone and putting it on You Tube and imagining that one is gifted and famous.
(UK, 2009, d. Nick Love)
Not to be mistaken for the Grisham/ Cruise thriller, this is a London-set drama about football hooliganism. It is a screen adaptation of a television film of the 1980s with Gary Oldman as the bullying leader of his 'firm' of local club supporters, a gang of brawling louts and directed by Alan Clark. Love has already made The Football Factory and has been interested in tough, even brutal, stories about bellicose men: The Business, Outlaw.
It is not as if there have not been many television and film portraits of this ugly side of British football life (Greenstreet, Awaydays...) as well as news items when this kind of violence breaks out. The British have had a bad reputation, but they are not the only country whose fans indulge in rough play off the pitch.
At first, this seems to be like many another similar story: Bex (Paul Anderson), is the big man in the area (job, estate agent), with wife and child, but whose anger and energy go into clashes with a rival film (leader played by Daniel Mays). He has a loyal following who band together at the pub, get their bats and knives, try to avoid the police and turn up at hotels or Underground stations where their rivals are expected to be.
In the neighbourhood are two lads, one of whom insults Bex and finds that they are both targets for violence. The other boy, Dom, (Calum McNab) apologises and gets on Bex's good side and follows him as a role model (in violence and in clothing fashion). Is Dom really this kind of follower and will he stay in Bex's good graces?
This is what makes the film more interesting than expected. Anderson's Bex is a monster and the actor's performance is entirely credible and frightening. But, with the focus on Dom (and his nice but ineffectual parents), the moral dilemma is well dramatised – pressure and expectations, the experience of ridicule and humiliation, to be violent or not.
Filmed in and around London, this may not be everybody's kind of story but, it is strong and topical stuff.
(US, 2009, d. Neveldine/Taylor)
After the hijinks and violence of Crank, then the off-the-wall and over-the-top style of its sequel, Crank High Voltage, fans know what to expect from the writing/directing team who go by their surnames, Neveldine/Taylor.
However, this one, which shares the delirious visual style of its predecessors, actually has some plot and themes – which may or may not be appreciated by the video game players (addicts) for whom the film was made.
Once again, especially during the credits with footage from the fine nature film, Baraka, the editing has us reeling as it introduces a world, 'not too many years from this exact moment' (sic), and shows us New York hooked on a huge television game where characters are controlled by the players at home. The game is called Slayers and the characters, especially Kable, played with determination by Gerard Butler, are prisoners with life sentences – if they can survive a number of games, they receive a pardon.
Slayers and its a previous game show, a sex show called Society, are the brainchildren of a multi-millionaire (acquired more quickly, he says, than Bill Gates) whose aim is mind control and world domination. He is played by TV's Dexter, Michael C. Hall, a man of menace as well as media charm and who breaks out into a song and dance routine of Cole Porter's Under My Skin as he prepares combat with the hero. It is that kind of film.
Kyra Sedgwick is an ambitious TV host who wants a story as the hero escapes from his game and from prison and goes in search of his wife, who is trapped as a controlled performer in Society, and his daughter.
This is a future where the population is hooked on sensationalist reality TV and self-indulgence, where a power-hungry madman has invented cells for replacement of brain matter so that everyone does his will. However, there is a resistance group and even the media host gets a trace of conscience. The message is the usual one, that freedom, obtained by heroic individuals, is what humans really need and want. It's just that along the way, Neveldine/ Taylor exploit, with great visual sensationalism and flair, the uglier and violent side of this futureworld. (Film Buffs have noted the similarity to the plot of the Arnold Schwarzenegger thriller of 1987, The Running Man.)
THE INVENTION OF LYING
(US, 2009, d. Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson)
A light comedy, played for smiles rather than laughs, that takes on quite a few potentially profound themes.
Co-writer/director, Ricky Gervais introduces the film during the credits and tells us that this is the story of a chubby little man (played by himself). The main thing about the world in which he lives is that everybody tells the truth – especially blurting out their inner thoughts and feelings, often unprovoked. They accept this disconcerting aspect of life as normal. Some of the scenes where characters come out with their unkind, dismissive and judgmental 'truths' is often ironically amusing.
However, one of the unanticipated aspects of the screenplay is that, because people speak the truth, those who hear it accept whatever they hear as true. Since a lot of the judgmental stuff is ridicule and writing off others as losers, this has
a deeply detrimental effect on self-image of those who are mocked and dismissed.
Down on his luck screen writer (for Lecture Films where a professor reads history texts from the screen (and is played by Christopher Guest), Mark Bellison (Gervais) is in love with Anna (Jennifer Garner) who wants a gene-correct husband and says so. But Mark is considered a loser by all, including those at the office (Rob Lowe, Tina Fey). However,one day he gets a brainwave while withdrawing his meagre savings from the bank and tells a lie, bumping up his cash total – which, in this world, is accepted as the truth. His life changes when he lies, sometimes for the benefit of others, especially when he comforts his dying mother (Fionnula Flanagan) who is afraid of an eternity of nothingness. Word gets out about how moving what he said to her really is and (a bit like The Life of Brian), he finds himself with a media frenzy and disciples who listen to his every word about 'the man upstairs' and messages about morality, eternity and the meaning of life. As if it had never been said before – we are obviously in a post-Christian era.
Ricky Gervais has a philosophy degree and philosophy underlies a great deal of the screenplay, raising issues about life and death, life after death, human freedom, the nature of God, God as beneficent and malevolent as well as the nature of the churches and whether all that they teach is truth or myth. It is not always subtle but, for those who are not upset because the film is not full of belly laughs, there is some light provocative thinking about important issues going on.
And, if you haven't heard, there are some amusing guest actors as a barman, a traffic cop and a doctor.
(UK, 2009, d. Lee Basannaver and Michael Tchoubouroff)
For a while, every second British small-budget film seemed to be about gangsters, especially in London. After a respite, here we are again. Jack Said, based on graphic novels by Paul Tanter who has written the screenplay, is one of a trilogy of projected films featuring Simon Philips as Jack, an undercover police officer who has gone so far deep that his boss (David O'Hara) warns him that it may not be possible to come back to normality.
In the meantime, he works with Nathan (Danny Dyer) who steals a case from the gang and has to hide. He entrusts his unwitting sister to Jack's care. Meanwhile, the gang head's ambitious daughter, Natalie (Ashley Walker) who does not suffer from scruples, is on her way to a takeover, not concerned about chopping off a rival's hand, commanding Jack to shoot Nathan and casting a malevolent eye at her father.
While watching the film, it is not as easy as the preceding paragraph might indicate to cotton on quickly to who is who and who is doing what to whom and why. It opens in black and white with Jack confronting a tied-up and gagged Natalie. It then moves to colour (although the colour shading of the film is quite dark) which, we realise after a while (or maybe at the end), is Jack explaining what has gone on to Natalie.
Jack's character elicits some pathos and a bemusement about how anyone can go undercover without some physical danger and psychological damage. Danny Dyer's Nathan is a bit more sympathetic than usual. But the thugs and the police are all intensely relentless.
Not a pretty picture.
JULIE AND JULIA
(US, 2009, d. Norah Ephron)
Julia Child is a household name it seems in the US, the renowned cook who introduced French cuisine and a greater variety of styles in cooking through her book and on television. Julie Powell has become known in the US through her blog and her decision to cook all of Julia Child's recipes over 365 days, which she did, becoming famous in the cooking world with her blog and then her book.
The two never met – and the screenplay indicates that the elderly Julia Child might not have wanted to meet Julie Powell or hear about her following all the recipes. However, writer-director, Nora Ephron (Heartburn with Meryl Streep, Sleepless in Seattle), has brought them together or, rather, has juxtaposed their stories, intercut them so that there are parallels (job frustration, outlet in cooking, supportive husband), and made an entertaining film that even non kitchen-habitues can enjoy. Better, if you like to cook and use recipe books.
There is a trouble here that dogs any film with two stories running together: one is often much more interesting than the other. It is not Amy Adams' fault that Julie Powell's story is less absorbing. She is nice but hers is the lesser feat. Frustrated in a government phone answering job where people insult her while she tries to do good, frustrated in her attempts to be a writer, she relaxes by cooking. With the support of her husband (Chris Messina) who does find all this irritating at times and wonders whether his wife is not too self-absorbed (a danger of running your own blog?), but not encouraged by her critical mother, she perseveres despite some mishaps.
The other trouble with the film – although we are grateful for it – is the overwhelming performance by Meryl Streep as Julia Child. She was a tall, big woman with a grand-dame voice and manner of speaking (some have mentioned a pantomime dame voice) that resembles Joan Plowright with more than a touch of Edith Evans. She had a hearty laugh. As expected, Meryl Streep does a marvellous impersonation – and can be checked with the scene where Julie Powell and her husband watch Dan Aykroys's funny Saturday Night Live take-off of Julia Child in her kitchen. (The kitchen, by the way, is now in the Smithsonian in Washington.)
The Child story takes place in France in the late 40s and through the 50s ending up in Boston. After OSS work during the war with her sympathetic (and shorter) husband, Paul (the genial Stanley Tucci), she realised she enjoyed eating and started to take cooking lessons, attempting cordon bleu and succeeding. She teamed up with two French cooks who were preparing a recipe volume in English and finished up being the mainstay of the eventual book.
Many of the French scenes are amusing as we follow Julia to cooking school, practising chopping onions and, eventually, delighting her husband with wonderful meals. On the serious side, he is called to America during the McCarthy? hearings when government workers were being checked for Communist background or sympathies. We are treated to the drama of frustration with publishers and to print or not to print.
A number of the audience were chuckling with delight through a lot of the film.
(US, 2009, d. Steven Soderbergh)
It would be very hard not to enjoy The Informant!
It is necessary to note the ! In the title – and to relish the initial disclaimer about truth and having to put events and characters together for fiction – ending with 'so there'.
It is a great part for Matt Damon (older and heavier) as a biochemist who is an FBI informant about kickbacks, extortion threats and price-fixing conspiracies in a powerful company in Dakatur, Illinois, in the first half of the 1990s.
And the screenplay is very clever. Introducing us to Mark Whitacre (Damon), a somewhat buttoned up scientist who has become involved in marketing and management, we find he is a jovial and charming worker, father, with a model wife (Melanie Lynskey) and two adopted children (because that is the right thing to do). The right thing is very important to him as he begins his two and a half years collaboration with two FBI agents (Scott Bakula and Joel McHale).
The other clever aspect of the screenplay is revealing Mark's inner life and imagination through Damon's ingenious voiceover – often distracted, patriotically ambitious in grandiose business dreams, liberally quoting TV series (real and imagined), articles and even Grisham's The Firm, novel and movie. And all this is backed up by a delightfully jaunty Marvin Hamlisch score.
But..., you need to see the film for humorous disbelief as Mark's story unfolds, infolds, crossfolds and overfolds.
In an era when US Capitalism (see Michael Moore's Capitalism, a Love Story) and bogus finance practices are being explosed, this is a lightheartedly serious insight into efficiency and inefficiency, FBI investigations, the Justice Department and general gullibility.
This is Steven Soderbergh in Oceans 11, 12, 13 vein but less trivially so.
(Israel, 2009, d. Samuel Maoz)
A war film worth seeing and reflecting on.
Writer-director, Samuel Moaz has made a statement that begins, 'On June 20th 1982, I killed...'. He explains how this experience for a young Israeli man being part of an attack on Lebanon meant that he felt that he had really died there. It took 25 yuears for him to recover some life, recreate this experience and that of the other 20 year olds who had previously fired only at barrels of oil, enjoying the macho spectacle of explosions but who were now ordered to fire at people and buildings.
Are then any other films set within a tank? Though the film is framed by memorable images of a field of sunflowers.
We spend the first day of the war mainly inside the tank, advancing, being fired on, stuck. There is the driver, the commander, the explosives loader and the gunner. They are in radio contact with a high command. The local officer commanding the infantry comes to give them orders at different times during the day. They have to load a dead soldier into the tank then hook him to the helicopter cables for his rescue. They have to keep guard on a Syrian prisoner. They have a visit from a secretly bloodthirsty phalangist who is supposed to lead them to safety.
The commander, finding it difficult to command and communicate with his men, is under stress. His friend, the loader, complains and takes over. The driver wants a message sent to his lonely mother. The new gunner fails to shoot an oncoming hostile vehicle and battle breaks out.. When he does shoot, innocent civilians are killed and apartments and shops destroyed.
The film shows the details of death and devastation for the Lebanese.
Perhaps it is presumptuous for an Israeli film to be called Lebanon. Hawkish critics may dismiss the anguish, confusion and fears of the young recruits as wimpish. However, for an Israeli audience, it presents a totally sombre picture of war and its consequences for 'enemies' as well as the soldiers. It is complemented by the film Beaufort which shows the last day of the occupation in the early 90s. Waltz with Bashir also offers sombre background to this war.
LE DONK & SCOR-ZAY-ZEE
(UK, 2009, d. Shane Meadows)
The title doesn't really give the plot away!
Shane Meadows has built a reputation for small-budget slices of British life, sometimes documentary-like (24/7, Somers Town and This is England), sometimes melodramatic (Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, Dead Man's Shoes). Paddy Considine appeared in his A Room for Romeo Brass and several films since. Now they have 'devised' a miniscule budget 70 minutes feature, filmed in five days, that works very well and shows the potential for this kind of film-making.
The title? Le Donk is the adopted name of a British roadie, whose real name is the disliked Nicholas (Considine). Scor-zay-zee is the stage name of a largish, young rapper (Dean Palinczuk). This is three days in their lives.
While the mockumentary format has been widely used, it still works entertainingly and has considerable potential. We see director, Shane Meadows, himself, and his sound engineer arriving at Le Donk's flat to start filming him at home. Le Donk has the gift of the gab (only more so), so there is rarely a quiet moment. But Paddy Considine invests him with a blend of likeable larrikinism, a large dollop of insensitivity, a zest for life with ego, a laddish response to what work, friends and life in general have to offer. This means we are laughing with him and at him, but not in a supercilious way. It's a fine line but, while you wouldn't want to spend a great deal of time with him in real life, he is entertaining enough company for the 70 minutes.
A sub-plot involves the pregnancy of his ex-girlfriend (Olivia Coleman) who is about to give birth and does. She plays it nicely and humanely as does Richard Graham as her boyfriend. Le Donk reflects on all of this and realises he can keep in touch with his child through email and be a cyberspace dad.
Scor-zay-zee, on the other hand, is overshadowed as a personality by Le Donk and his ego. He writes lyrics, tries hard to find a power source for his keyboard and doesn't exhibit much personality until the final performance with Le Donk at an Arctic Monkeys concert at Old Trafford cricket ground in Manchester.
Perhaps you wouldn't miss much if you never saw the film, but there is much to enjoy with Paddy Considine's rough and ready (rough language) and surprisingly engaging performance.
LIFE DURING WARTIME
(US, 2009, d. Todd Solontz (pictured))
Despite the framing of the credits in old-fashioned mode and typeface, this is a very contemporary story that demands attention for its themes of family, relationships and a theme that has shockingly emerged in recent decades, the sexual abuse of children. This was all present in writer-director, Todd Solontz's striking film of 1998, Happiness. He takes up the characters from that film but casts an entirely different group of actors for the parts, not necessarily following strict chronology but, rather, speculating on what has happened to these characters.
Todd Solontz is not a mainstream film-maker. He draws us into US suburbia - and we are unsure where he is taking us as his dialogue blends complete naturalism with some surrealist touches, some fantasy and touches of the absurd.
It is the same in Life During Wartime, opening with a tearful conversation in a restaurant between Shirely Henderson and Michael Kenneth Williams where it emerges he has profound psychosexual problems. Then, cut to a sunny outdoors Florida and a meal conversation between Allison Janney and Michael Lerner. The scenes seem quite disparate but come together clearly: three sisters (Henderson, Janney and Ally Sheedy; Janney's family and the revelation that the father is in jail for pedophilia. However, we see him released, involved in an exploitative episode with an older, fading woman) Charlotte Rampling.
(US, 2009, d. Brandon Camp)
Before the press screening started, one reviewer called to another to tell him that the media notes quoted the director as saying this romantic comedy began with the death of his mother. Which sounded rather chortlable. However, on seeing the film, we understand what he meant. Love Happens is a romantic comedy, but it is more concerned with death and grieving and continuing on with life – a context in which love happens.
For a non-American audience, the film is very American, at least in the sense that it is very emotional and not only wears its heart on its sleeve, it is about encouraging others to wear their hearts on their sleeves and to go beyond mere exhibition to communicating (loudly) one's heart. The time span of the screenplay is that of a five day seminar in Seattle on dealing with the death of a loved one.
We are introduced to Burke Ryan (Aaron Eckhart), a psychotherapist who has written a best-seller, A-OK, explaining how he had come to terms with the death of his wife in an accident. While he puts on the smiling media front (and his agent (Dan Fogler) is just about to score a multi-million dollar contract for radio, TV, publishing and a series of sponsored goods), he has not coped at all well with the death. He covers his refusal and subsequent phobias by working on others' problems. This is movingly dramatised (with some critical provisos about this kind of group emotional therapy) as he works with a contractor, a physically big man, still grieving the death of his 12 year old son and whose marriage and job have crashed around him. John Carroll Lynch is effective as Walter, the contractor.
He encounters, in passing, the florist who decorates the hotel, Eloise (Jennifer Aniston). She is experiencing betrayal by her boyfriend, romantic encouragement and caution from her co-worker (Judy Greer) and her mother (Frances Conroy). Eloise and Burke enjoy each other's company, are able to communicate as friends, but he is still not able to be open with her about his wife's death and makes up a glowing story about her funeral. Also in the picture is his wife's father (Martin Sheen) – Burke has been avoiding his wife's family as well.
Aaron Eckhart is a good actor and is convincing as the assured therapist whose life is far more complex than he will admit. He gives some backbone to the romance and the comedy. Jennifer Aniston does what she does best and is nicer and more sensible than in some of her recent roles. With Martin Sheen and John Carroll Lynch, there is some more emotional depth than might have been expected.
A film that can be seen without apprehension (unless one needs to come to terms with personal grief about the death of a loved one) by all adult audiences. And if you expected a final kiss fade-out, you're wrong. It is Martin Sheen talking with a parrot!!