SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS, OCTOBER 2009
MY LIFE IN RUINS (DRIVING APHRODITE)
MY SON, MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE
SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD
(US, 2008, d. Stephen Belber)
Advertised as a Jennifer Aniston film, it seems a bit of a failure. She is always much the same and is here – pouty, unpredictable, mellowing a little.
But, if it had been promoted as a Steve Zahn film, then it is much better.
The focus is on his character, Mike, son of the owners of a Kingman, Arizona, motel (Margo Martindale and Fred Ward), who acts as handyman and nightshift manager but, so far, is more of a loser and suffers from arrested emotional development. When he tries to be nice to Sue (Aniston) a surface-uptight travelling saleswoman, with the reward of touching her, his life is changed and he follows her to Baltimore, then to Aberdeen, Washington, where she is about to marry her ex-boyfriend, ex-Punk musician (Woody Harrelson doing his mad thing).
So, the ingredients for a romantic comedy become something of a 21st century screwball comedy – including Mike hang-gliding and parachuting into Harrelson's swimming pool. Mike's Chinese American buddy suggests a Buddhist monastery – which, at least, has a good influence on Mike, helping him to grow up a little, so that...
Steve Zahn is credible in this kind of role, making a potentially alienating character more endearing than one might have thought.
There is a happy ending all round.
MY SON, MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE
(US, 2009, d. Werner Herzog)
After his fling at making a US police thriller, Werner Herzog ventures again into American suburbia, this time in San Diego. The film opens with police patrolling (Willem Dafoe and Michael Pena), chatting about a car chase, Tarantino style. We may think Herzog has become enamoured ot the US police stories. He has and he hasn't.
In fact, the framework of the film is a house siege in a quiet street but the substance of the plot is told in flashbacks. We learn that the quite odd Brad (the often sinister Michael Shannon) has killed his mother. He has called his fiancee )Chloe Sevigny) and his theatre director, (Udo Keir) to come to the scene. They provide the narrative for the flashbacks - to Peru where instead of white water rafting, Brad declares that he hears voices and God has told him what to do; to his work in a drama ensemble putting on the Oresteia, the film drawing on Green tragedy to show the myths of matricide and the reality. He is then lost in Tijuana, buying cushions for his moter, rescued by his fiancee, then giving the pillows to a young man in a park, visiting the sick in a naval hospital (security stops him) and then placing a basketball in a tree for a boy to find it and become a great player.
Appearing in the flashbacks is his strange, even eerie, mother (Grace Zabriskie from films by David Lynch who executive produced this film. As a smotheringly devoted mother, she has determined Brad's life, invaded his privacy and, so, fore-ordained he death.
The film veers between sige and flashbacks. Herzog has said that he wanted to make a horror film without gore or exploitation touches. This means that his film is strong on characters and situations. It plays awkwardly at times but is atmospheric.
MY LIFE IN RUINS (DRIVING APHRODITE)
(US, 2008, d. Donald Petrie)
Perhaps My Life in Ruins sounds too much of a downer but, for some overseas countries, the title was changed to Driving Aphrodite, which may not do much to help the film at the box office either.
This is the kind of romantic comedy that they say they don't make any more (apart from some innuendo and some more contemporary relational behaviour). It is a sunny film and not just because it was filmed mainly in Greece.
Nia Vardalos will forever be remembered as the woman from My Big Fat Greek Wedding. This film is much lighter and slighter – but in the same vein.
Nia Vardalos plays Georgia, a tourist guide in Athens, who has lost her university teaching job but takes some of the same methods of explaining facts and dates to impose on her tourists (who, oddball as they are, seem to prefer shopping souvenirs and mucking around which makes one wonder why they came to Greece in the first place). She decides she is on her last tour, stuck with the oddballs on an old bus where the air conditioning doesn't work, where the hairy, bearded driver seems to speak no English and the tourists, Group B, are bored with her commentaries and would much rather be in Group A with the ingratiating guide, Nico (Alistair McGowan). On the face of it, it doesn't seem likely that Georgia can or will change. But, we know she will.
The driver does speak English, likes her and shaves his beard. The joker in the group, Irv (Richard Dreyfuss), is the wise old man (who lapses rather egregiously with two of the Spanish divorcees on board) who suggests how Georgia might mellow, change and become more human (and endearing to the tourists). Actually, he does it for most of the group in a sentimental scene at the oracle of Delphi.
There are some funny moments and lines, though not uproarious comedy, especially with an elderly English lady who excels in shoplifting. There are the very American couple, the boring US executive who is on his mobile phone all the time, an English prissy couple with a moody teenage daughter, a fat naïve young American...
But, there is great appeal in the Greek scenery and in Nia Vardalos' vivacity.
Those who have visited Greece and, especially, those who have done guided bus tours will resonate with it.
(Germany/US, 2009, d. Christian Alvart)
This space drama, in the vein of the Alien series, a touch of 2001, and some living dead, has a limited niche market – space film fans and those who enjoy the touch of menace and horror. But, for that niche market, it is particularly well made and has the clear signs of becoming a cult movie.
A busy prologue during the credits takes us from the moon landing and the earth's population figures in 1969 through the decades into the 22nd century where earth has disappeared and we see a space ship bound for another remote planet to colonise it. But...
Inside the ship, Bower (Ben Foster) wakes from a deep sleep and finds he cannot remember a lot of the details of the mission. Then, his superior, Payton, (Dennis Quaid) wakes. They seem to be alone on this vast, dark and ever more sinister ship. Other crew members are found dead. Gradually, other live presences suggest themselves. A few are human, the rest, vicious, cannibalistic mutants. Can Bower activate the reactor and save the ship? Will he and the few humans survive? How destructive are the mutants? Will Payton keep control? Is this the end of the human race? A fair amount of issues to ponder while the action plays out, much of it chase and pursuit, some of it struggles and fights – and, finally, some explanations, especially about Pandorum, a name for a mental condition that space travellers are prone to and leads to paranoia (and the explanation of what happened to the empty ship).
The vast sets for the ships interior are impressive. There are effects for the creatures and stunts for the fights, some of which are a touch too brutal.
However, the lighting and photography deserve great commendation. While most of the action is in the dark – with some red sequences at times and a few with full light – the action and characters can always be seen with the judicious lighting so that one does not have to peer as in too many films with action in the dark. The effect might be a bit claustrophobic, but it works well for the atmosphere of Pandorum.
The director is Christian Alvart who made the edgy German drama, Antibodies, and the American thriller, Case 39.
(US, 2009, d. John Hillcoat)
This is a beautifully made film which offers so much to reflect on. It is a pity that it won't appeal to a wide audience who may not be attracted by its post-apocalyptic scenario, by its grim quest as a surviving father and son make for the coast. They pass though quake-upheavaled terrain, scorched earth, frozen earth, barren earth,bare and collapsing trees, desolate landscapes, deserted homes, shopping centres, cities, with marauding and cruel gangs, odd straggling strangers, starving, searching for food – with minimal glimmers of hope. The special effects and locations for the earth and the quakes are more than credible with filming in Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Oregon and Mt St Helens.
The photography by Javier Aguirresaroba is outstanding. The score is by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Fine direction is by John Hillcoat (Ghosts of the Civil Dead, To Have and To Hold, The Proposal).
The Road makes its audience ask themselves what they might do in these circumstances, how they would think, how they would feell, want to survive or not, how they would cope with vicious humans and with needy human beings. Some God questions are raised in this adaptation by playwright, Joe Penhall, form the novel by Cormac Mc Carthy, author of No Country for Old Men.
In the last decade Viggo Mortensen has excelled in Lord of the Rings, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, a versatile, persuasive and humane performer. His presence as the loving and protective father gives The Road great strength. The boy, Kodi Smit- Mc Phee (Romulus, My Father) is good as the son who has known only this devastated world and his memories of his mother (Charlize Theron effective as a tormented, depressed survivor).
There is Robert Duvall at his best in a short telling role as an old man wandering the roads, just about surviving.
A fine film, regrettably not going to be seen as much as it should be.
(US, 2009, d. Joe Wright)
A film which seems to have divided audiences. Some have been very moved by the story and impressed by the treatment. Others have felt detached and unmoved, some hostile, critical of the screenplay and the ways in which the characters are portrayed.
This review is from the 'moved' perspective.
Robert Downey Jr is Steve Lopez, a columnist for the LA Times, always in search of a story. He himself is in something of a trough, ex-wife who is his editor, no contact with his son at college, sackings going on at the paper... (In fact, while Lopez is a real character and was a consultant for the film, he is happily married with three children, the change being for dramatic purposes). Catherine Keener plays his former wife.
One day, sitting outside, he hears a violin. He discovers that the musician, Nathanael Ayers Jr, is one of LA's 90,000 street people. He strikes up a conversation only to find that the player has mental problems, chatters on (something like David Helfgott in Shine which The Soloist resembles in many ways) and had studied at the Julliard School of Music. The film is about each character and a growing friendship and respect. Some critics have commented that the film focuses too much on Lopez and his growing awareness of his limitations and discovery of his better self; they would have preferred more on Ayers. Some have also commented on the fact that Ayers is black and the film emphasises the 'redemption' of the white man. It also shows how any man (in this particular case a black man) can transcend his past without necessarily being freed from mental illness.
The film shows Lopez's journey from do-gooder on terms that he takes for granted (that everyone wants to live in a house, that mental illnesses need to be diagnosed quickly for medication so that street people can be controlled as well as helped). After a rebuff from Nathanael, he comes to learn respect and friendship.
However, Lopez would have no story without Nathanael (who, with his sister, also acted as technical advisers for the film). As played by Jamie Foxx, he is an arresting and interesting character, and, in no way, a sentimental cypher. It is an excellent and convincing performance that should help audiences empathise more with those on the streets. Some who do not like the film also complain that the only reason that Nathanael is interesting is because he is such a talented musician. In fact, the film pays quite some attention to other homeless people and puts some fine critical words into the mouth of the man who runs the LAMP shelter in Los Angeles. (And the character of Mary, the ex-wife, also makes the point of asking whether Lopez is interested in Nathanael only because of his columns.)
Nathanael has a great devotion to Beethoven and classics, including Bach, pervade the soundtrack.
Director Joe Wright made Pride and Prejudice and Atonement and brings a British eye to photographing the city of Los Angeles and its streets with many aerial shots as well as in ground level detail.
Excellent lead performances whether the audience is moved by the story and the characters or not.
(US, 2009, d. Stewart Hendler)
A re-make of a 1983 film which, looking at the review I wrote at the time, was a routine slasher movie of the period (after all it is 31 years since Halloween) but better than the usual, The House on Sorority Row.
Now for Sorority Row. When the central characters are college students who have pulled a prank on an obnoxious young man by setting him up to think that he has killed his girlfriend – and then he does, so that they have to conceal the body, well, they aren't particularly likeable. And it is not easy to be too worried when they start to be picked off on their graduation day by a hooded figure with a deadly weapon. That is Sorority Row, a concoction of a slasher thriller that does not spend very much time on character development and then starts to kill off extra characters whom one has barely glimpsed (there is a shower scene) for no apparent reason. While the reason does become clearer at the end when the killer is unhooded, the identity and motivation of the killer is more than a little suspect. Bruce Willis and Demi Moore's daughter, Rumer, is one of the sorority and Carrie Fisher has to mouthe some lines she probably would never want to write in one of her books.
A rather bypassable thriller.
(US, 2009, d. Jonathan Mostow)
The cast, led by Bruce Willis, Rhada Mitchell and Rosamund Pike, is not exactly a Who's Who of action drama casts. But Who's Who is a key to understanding this intriguing futuristic parable about identity, responsibility and allowing technology to cut people off from the realities of life.
The opening credit sequence has a lot going on: a resume history of recent decades with the progressive development of surrogate technology, the creating of robotic technology where the androids are controlled by the owners but speak and act vicariously for the controlling person who does not necessarily have to leave their room or their bed, lying down, physically idle, while the surrogate acts for them. And the surrogate need not be a look-alike. An individual can commission many surrogates, including their younger selves, or their would-be selves. That is the difficulty with Who's Who. James Cromwell as the inventor has several surrogates, younger men, a boy and can connect to other surrogates to disguise himself, including a police investigator.
At first we are bemused by a wigged Bruce Willis who looks as if he has had some plastic surgery. But, keeping out eye on the title of the film, we realise that this is an artificial Bruce Willis – and Bruce, in his mid-50s (and without the hair-piece) is soon revealed to us.
When the son of the creator of surrogates is killed, the surrogate police (Willis and Mitchell) investigate. So, we have a police investigation film where the surrogate can be destroyed while the controller lives – and takes on another surrogate. The moral of the story, however, is that technological advances are destroying our humanity, so Willis (the human one, not the surrogate) goes out to do the investigating himself. He ventures into a zone where humans against surrogates have a colony ruled by The Prophet (Ving Rhames) and are instigating protest and revolution.
Willis also has problems at home. His ageing wife refuses to come out of her room owing to the accidental death of their son – and lives through a glamorous and very worldly surrogate (both parts played by Rosamund Pike).
There is a satisfying semi-apocalyptic ending – but, while in real life and in public opinion, most people seem to be in favour of 'breakthrough' technological advances like this surrogacy, the movies tend to take the Frankenstein point of view, that science creates monsters that destroy us. Surrogates is one of these warning parables about such a future.
SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD
(US, 2009, d. George A. Romero)
For more than 40 years, George A. Romero has lived on his achievement and reputation for Living Dead movies. The Night of the Living Dead was surprising and shocking in 1968. The later Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead (late 70s and mid 80s) had bigger budgets and were in colour – and enlarged his cohorts of fans. He did make other films (Martin, Monkey Shine), most with horror touches.
In 2005, he was persuaded to make Land of the Dead, a remake (re-envisioning) of his earlier films. It had critical and commercial success. Two years later, he varied the approach with Diary of the Dead, using the device of a van of young people making a video documentary of the phenomenon and horrors of the living dead, zombies. They were accosted by a band of roving National Guard. Survival takes up the actions of the National Guard.
Obviously, the fans will be satisfied simply because George Romero made it and it is there. However, the shooting, slicing, dicing, decapitating of biting and chomping zombies has its entertainment limits (despite special effects innovations – and multi-repetitions), To continue the by now franchise, some plot developments are necessary.
Survival tries this with some success, though it is continually punctuated by the aforesaid shootings and slicings. Romero states that his plot is based on the 50s western, The Big Country, but it is just like the legendary feuding of the Hatfields and the Mc Coys. Two Irish clans have been at loggerheads for generations (Flynns and Muldoons) on Plum Island off Delaware. The exiled Flynn chief gets the National Guard to the island and confronts Muldoon who is trying to tame the zombies (so that they eat other flesh beside human) and so train them to continue their work.
Performances are stock, except for Kenneth Welsh who stands out as Patrick Flynn. Dialogue is often mundane and crass (uninventive) so does not provide enough of a witty and thoughtful balance to the zombie horror. It looks as though their will be a sequel.
(Australia/UK, 2009, d. Christopher Smith)
If a director wants to make a suspense thriller aboard a yacht and then an empty luxury liner, Triangle is quite a good way to do it.
This is an Australian production with UK and Irish money, filmed on the Gold Coast. They Australian cast impersonate Americans in Florida – to ensure some American box-office.
The cast is small, spending the first half of the film on a yacht on a sunny Saturday afternoon sea pleasure cruise. Then comes a storm (quite effective) which overturns the yacht. When a liner hoves in sight, they are relieved and go on board. Since this is a scary thriller, you know that there are going to be frights and deaths (gory, but not exaggerated).
The problem was that after 40 minutes, most of the characters were dead. How could it go on for another hour? It does – and best not to give hints about what happens except that before the deaths, the heroine, Jess (Melissa George) has shuddering impressions of deja vu on the boat. Then the action moves quite rapidly with twists and turns.
The film could have ended several times with reasonable explanations of what has happened and fans of the genre will have probably worked out something plausible. But, the ending tricks us with another plausible explanation – which is a satisfying conclusion to a small budget but effective tease and scare thriller.
(US, 2009, d. Dominic Sena)
Under all the snow and ice and the exotic Antarctica settings, this is a rather routine murder mystery plus theft. The beginning of the southern hemisphere winter and evacuation of the base provides an interesting location for the work of American Marshal, Carrie Stetko (Kate Beckinsale) and some hazards for the law and for the criminals.
It opens with the crash of a Russian plane in 1957 – which means the discovery of the plane decades later and the theft of what might be nuclear material by person or persons unknown on the Antarctic base.
For a slender actress, Kate Beckinsale has become something of an action movie icon (the Underworld series) and is both tough and vulnerable here (courtesy of some flashbacks to her Chicago police past). Gabriel Macht is an FBI investigator who helps and has to fight the villain in snow and ice gales. Tom Skerritt is the benign about-to-retire doctor.
There are some more deaths, desperation in the snow, a confrontation and a final revelation (on a base in Antarctica there are limited personnel, therefore, suspects) of who is the hidden ally. With the short list of possibilities, the culprit will be on your list, perhaps on top of the list.
(US, 2009, d. Ruben Fleischer)
At least you know where you stand (or sit) by the title! You are in Zombieland US, where a virus has infiltrated the majority of the population who are now the equivalent of George A Romero's Living Dead, preying on the living and devouring them if they can (though they can run fast, chasing the living, rather than lurch as they do in Romero's films – which, it seems, is why the fat people are the first to be caught and eaten!).
Of course, not everyone wants to see zombie films whether they are serious or funny. This one is funny. There have been some scary movie spoofs but they tend to be a bit along the scratch concert line, hit and miss jokes – and sometimes aiming at the lowest common denominator.
Zombieland is much more cleverly written. It parallels and parodies the living dead conventions but has a lot of wisecracks, especially with movie references, so that there are frequent smiles and laughs.
With the bigger budget than the cheap parodies, the sets are more impressive, especially the climax at a fun park where the cast go on a literal rollercoaster to escape the zombies. And the cast is very good. Jesse Eisenberg gives yet another variation (no, that is too strong a description because he is much the same every time) on his wimpish, dorkish persona which he does so well. He speaks the voiceover narration and his delivery and timing are just right in describing what has happened to the world, how he ticks as a phobia-ridden young man (whose first encounter with a girl finished up with her being a zombie and attacking him) and his list of rules for dealing with zombies.
When he encounters a redneck human (Woody Harrelson at his manic best, shooting zombies but weeping for the loss of his dog - to the accompaniment of Paul Anka singing Puppy Love), there is a standoff but they decide to take the road together. Then they encounter two sisters (Emma Stone and, of all serious young actors, Abigail Breslin) who are not all they seem. It is as if the four of them are in a zombie re-make of I Am Legend.
The foursome, each with a particular eccentricity that makes for humorous interactions, arrive in LA and decide to settle in the mansion belonging to Bill Murray who is at home and gives one of his fine comic performances, sending up Ghostbusters and expressing, when asked, his movie regrets: Garfield!
Given the number of slasher movies, living dead and other horror films, it is good to have one that takes the genres seriously enough to parody them so well.