FILM REVIEWS OCTOBER 2010
CATS AND DOGS: THE REVENGE OF KITTY GALORE
CHARLIE ST CLOUD
CITY OF YOUR FINAL DESTINATION, The
I’M STILL HERE
LAST AIRBENDER, The
LEAST OF THESE, The
OTHER GUYS, The
TOMORROW WHEN THE WAR BEGAN
CATS AND DOGS: THE REVENGE OF KITTY GALORE
(US, 2010, d. Brad Peyton)
The first Cats and Dogs (2001) was an amusing variation on the talking animals’ movies – but this time they have used familiar espionage and action conventions and have provided some entertaining spoofs. With Mr Tinkles, voiced by Sean Hayes, the original was something of a sharp parody.
This one intends much the same. Not that the kiddies for whom the film is intended are going to get the wordplay on Pussy Galore (after all, the movie of Goldfinger was 47 years ago!) nor recognise the amusing style of these credits aping Maurice Binder’s credits for all those James Bond films. And, it would have to be a precocious infant movie buff who would enjoy the joke of Roger Moore playing a cat whose name is Lazenby.
Actually, the conspiracy theory behind the plot here is not particularly startling. The scorned Kitty Galore (voiced by an over-the-top Bette Midler) wants to control the world by making dogs go so berserk that they upset their owners who get rid of them and the cats take over and Kitty becomes a feline Blofeld.
Meantime, Diggs (voiced by James Marsden) is a police dog, heroic but lacking in judgment, prone to on the job disasters. Despite the pleas of his owner (Chris O’ Donnell), Diggs is pensioned off but recruited by the international dog squad where dogs combat evil instead of being taken to the pound. This time, the boss, Butch (now voiced by a humorously gruff Nick Nolte), recruits Diggs to bring down Kitty Galore. There are dogs (Neil Patrick Harris), an ally cat (Christina Applegate) and a garrulous homing pigeon (Katt Williams) amongst the agents.
What follows is investigation, canine mayhem, feline malice, and ultimate success.
Diggs is reunited with his master, but is called again by Butch because Mr Tinkles, imitating Blofeld and laughing like Dr Evil, is offering a potential sequel.
CHARLIE ST CLOUD
(US, 2010, d. Burr Steers)
Based on a novel, The Death and Life of Charlie St Cloud, the film takes its themes from the book’s title. It is about death and life after death – that is, life after death here on earth. It is a pleasing film, especially if one is open to some of the more transcendent aspects of life and the purpose of life and individual calling. (I don’t think Charlie St Cloud will be high on the list of films to be screened at a Sceptics Convention.)
Zac Efron is Charlie. After proving an irrestistible heartthrob to teenage girls in the High School Musical series, he has proven that he is also a capable actor in Hairspray, 18 Again and Me and Orson Welles.
Charlie and his little brother, Sam (Charlie Tahan), are very close, sharing skills at sailing and Charlie coaching his brother in baseball. They live with their mother (Kim Basinger) after their father has walked out on them. Then tragedy strikes. A car smash. A medic (who prays to St Jude) is able to resuscitate Charlie but not Sam. Five years pass and Charlie has become something of a recluse, caretaker for the local cemetery and quietly working on boat designs. He had made a promise to Sam that they would have an hour’s baseball coaching every afternoon. Charlie is still faithful to this.
Charlie is not exactly haunted, but he sees the dead, including a high school friend who has been killed in Iraq. Most people think he has not got over his grief and is a bit touched in the head. In a brief, moving encounter, the paramedic who now has terminal cancer, Florio (a non-threatening Ray Liotta in a sympathetic role), persuades Charlie that he has a mission because he came back to life. His widow makes a special visit to Charlie because her husband wanted him to have his St Jude medal.
When he encounters, Tess (Amanda Crews), another high school acquaintance, at the cemetery, angry at the lack of tending of her father’s grave, Charlie is more than attracted. Tess is a sailor and plans to enter an important race. The film develops their relationship and commitment, Tess’s sailing into a storm, Charlie believing that she is not dead, and being compelled to find her.
While there is both charm and warmth in the film and its depiction of selflessness, it is one of those films that you feel is ‘not quite’ what it set out to be and so somewhat diminished in its impact.
THE CITY OF YOUR FINAL DESTINATION
(US, 2008, d. James Ivory)
At the time of directing this film, James Ivory was nearing eighty. He has a fine body of work, from his films in India in the 1960s and 1970s, to his adaptations of the 1980s and 1990s (especially of novels by Henry James: The Europeans, The Bostonians, The Golden Bowl, and of E.M.Forster: A Room with a View, Maurice, Howard’s End), to his wider range of adaptations in later years. However, many critics and audiences have found his style, and sumptuous re-creations of period, too old-fashioned as cinema. The appropriate response is that his film-making follows classical styles. For those who follow the tradition of mocking films as ‘Merchant-Ivory heritage films’, this adaptation of a novel by Peter Cameron will be just another film. For those who have enjoyed Ivory’s talent for telling stories for adult audiences, 22 of them written by Ruth Prawer Jabvala over a period of 45 years, they will be interested in a range of different characters in an Uruguyan setting.
Omar, a young academic wants to write the biography of a one-novel success, a dead writer from Uruguay. Pushed by his girlfriend, Deidre, he finds that the family refuses to give a clearance for his work. He ventures into Uruguay and meets a strange community of family and friends and gets to know them, with the hope of persuading them. The author’s older gay brother is in favour of the project. The widow is definitely not. The mistress, with her little daughter, is also not in favour. The screenplay offers a lot of conversations, often delivered with some asperity. There is also a great deal of detail of life in this secluded part of the world. The enjoyment of the film is in responding to the characters and the performances, reflections on celebrity and privacy, as well as the development of the character of the young man.
Filmed in Argentina, there is a strong sense of the Latin American atmosphere, on the pampas, in the local towns, on the estate.
Omar Metwally is an attractive screen presence even when he is dilatory, over cautious and put upon by his girlfriend, (Alexandra Maria Lara is very good in alienating the characters and dominating Omar). The author’s brother is played with some insouciance by Anthony Hopkins with Hiroyuki Sanada as Pete his longtime companion. Laura Linney is haughtiness personified as Caroline, the widow. Charlotte Gainsbourg is quite ingenuously charming as Arden, the mistress, who has fitted into this different world and lives for her little daughter.
A lot of surface gentility. A lot of simmering passions and petty distrusts, although the film remains quite calm rather than passionate. Not an Ivory masterpiece, but interesting and entertaining straightforward storytelling.
(US, 2010, d. Jacques Reynaud and Pierre Coffin)
Not too many films around with 'despicable' in the title. And the film is so entertaining that critics will not be tempted to use 'despicable' to describe it. It is very likeable, even the villain (hero), Gru. Children will enjoy it, as will adults, but it is for older youngster rather than the littlies.
While some of the elements may be familiar enough, two rival villains and their competitiveness, three little orphans with wide-eyed longing to be adopted, the strands come together in ways that are rather unpredictable.
The characters and the drawings are quite different from the American style and much of the animation was done in Paris by a French team. This is most welcome. The characters are all exaggerated, especially the adult faces. We know many of the cast who voice the characters – but the drawings don't look like the stars at all. Steve Carrell (relishing his accent, from Eastern Europe?) is not tall and gangly like Gru (the initials come from an old Soviet intelligence agency). Jason Segal is quite big but here voices the small, nerdy, paunchy villain, Vector. And, just as well Julie Andrews doesn't look like Gru's mum, a witch-nosed, piled-hair harridan of a mother (with Julie voicing it as gruff and accented as well), And Doctor Nefario does not look like Russell Brand. The voices are most enjoyable.
And the plot? The film opens with a bold kid climbing up the great pyramid in Cairo only to discover that it is a blow-up and the real one has been stolen – as have other emblematic buildings. Then we are introduced to the misanthropic Gru who aspires to be the world's greatest villain and is feeling rather peeved that someone else has stolen the pyramid. But he has a bright idea – and the screenwriters must have thought, why not go for the moon, and they do. Gru will steal the moon by shrinking it and bring it back to earth for ransom in his Dr Nefario-built rocket. You see, it is unpredictable!
Gru, however, was not counting on the determination of the three orphans who tried to sell him cookies. They want to escape from the institution's cruel Miss Hattie (Kristin Wiig). They are American-cute and start to melt Gru's heart, even with a visit to an entertainment part and a roller coaster ride (in 3D) that is too much for Gru.
There is a lot of slapstick from the Pixar-studio like little minions that Gru relies on for everything, even the final cliffhanger (well, cable hanger between two rocket ships!).
Amusing for all – and adults may like the sub-heading over the door of The Bank of Evil: 'Formerly Lehmann Brothers'.
DIARY OF A WIMPY KID
(US, 2010, d. Thor Freudenthal)
Definitely for young teens (younger if they have had experience of bullies and now have ambitions for being popular), but many parents seem to have enjoyed it, no doubt remembering their childhood or observing parallels with their own children. I was wondering about enjoying it until I saw the PE coach (Coach Malone!) bullying the younger kids who had to be stand-up knock-down targets for his older footballing team – and my memory hurried back to... and the film seemed a little more realistic than I would have thought.
But, then I had difficulty with Greg (Zachary Gordon), the allegedly wimpy kid, who did not seem all that wimpy to me. He looks like what Americans love to call ‘cute’. But, he generally didn’t act too cutely at all – and this has appealed to reviewers who can’t stand goody-goody kids on screen. Rather, he seemed something of a selfish brat, quite self-centred and absorbed, wanting popularity at any cost, pushing himself and downsizing others so that he would appear as a success in the yearbook, a social conformist to all the expectations for being the all-American. So, in moments of anti-Yank hostility, I thought him the ‘typical American (for which I now apologise, but you know what I mean).
Greg lies, exploits, betrays, mocks his best friend, letting him take the blame for his wrong-doing. Perhaps I am just being carried away because so many warm to Greg and his ‘cuteness’.
My sympathies were really with the plump, the naive and straightforward Rowley (Robert Capron) who is always putting his foot in it, blurting out the truth (to his best friend Greg’s dismay). But, Rowley is all the nicer for it. Maybe Greg is not entirely to blame. Look at his family. His father, played by Steve Zahn just like the morons Greg sketches and despises, is dumb. His mother (Rachael Harris), however, is tolerant and does offer good advice. Greg’s older brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick) plays tricks on him with superior meanness (but, are we to applaud when Greg mischievously and just as meanly turns the tables on Rodrick and gets him into trouble?). There is also a little brother with some potty difficulties. Come to think of it, Greg is very nasty to Pam, the stuck-up would-be head of the class during a performance of The Wizard of Oz.
Greg and Rowley fall out to Greg’s frustration and Rowley’s bewilderment. Rowley becomes popular after Greg has broken Rowley’s hand, all the girls wanting to sign his cast. Rowley also wins the competition for the school paper cartoonist which Greg presumed he would win.
Not to spoil the ending (and a sequel is in the works, though Rodrick’s name is in the title), Greg does have a spectacular conversion experience to do with a progressively moulding piece of cheese in the school yard – the kids believe that anyone who touches it, let alone eats it, has the cheese curse. Greg defends Rowley.
If you really like this film, which in tone and jokes is better than a lot of too-knowing and crude school movies, you may judge that this piece was written as part of the diary of a wimpy reviewer.
(US, 2010, d. Will Gluck)
Some years ago, Mean Girls turned out to be a surprisingly entertaining look at how teens interact among themselves at school, the groupings, the gossip, the rivalries, and the meanness. Easy A is in the same vein and an enjoyable look at high schoolers (while some parents may be wringing their hands). But, it makes some points very well, amusingly and tellingly.
Gossip is the key idea. The premiss of the film is that to fulfil the over-expectations of her best friend about sex and boyfriends, Olive (an anagram of I love, she points out to the boy who wonders what an anagram is) on an impulse makes up a juicy story about how she spent the weekend with an older man, George. In fact, she spent the weekend home alone. Before you can think to say ‘gossip’, the story is all around the school, and, as they say, increasing exponentially in content and salaciousness. What is Olive to do?
Emma Stone is very good indeed as Olive, making her a strong character, narrating on line, with hand printed chapter credits, the story of her loss of reputation, or her gaining of a reputation as the school slut. This is compounded by the Christian moral group headed by the daughter of a minister, Maryanne (Amanda Bynes) who is really responsible for the rumour-mongering. Olive is supported by ex-hippy like loving parents (Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci are very good) and an adopted brother, black – the parents saying that they had been planning to let him know when the time was right.
Olive then lets herself get entangled, sometimes out of a kind attitude, sometimes out of mischief, to let her reputation get worse by the students thinking she is promiscuous, with a gay student, a fat rejected student, an Indian student – who all pay up with cash or gift vouchers for stores. How can it end, especially when the school counsellor (Lisa Kudrow) who is married to Olive’s favourite teacher (Thomas Haden Church) who is explaining Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter? Olive throws caution and reputation to the wind, changes her wardrobe to more provocative and sews a large scarlet A on to her dresses.
It has to come to a head and Olive makes the on-line confession of the truth – but there is one boy who believes in her (because she had saved his reputation when he was 8 and she let everyone think he had kissed her when he was reluctant to) and so a happy ending for Olive is possible.
The message is strong and rather alarming in how people listen instantly to rumours of the worst kind, believe them without reflection, pass them on with vicarious enjoyment, label people and relish looking down on them while still eager to hear more details. Olive sees it as a variation on the plight of Hester Prynne and the original scarlet letter.
Some time ago, Alicia Silverstone starred in Clueless which took Jane Austen’s Emma and explored plot, character and themes in a contemporary setting. Easy A is in this vein.
I’M STILL HERE
(US, 2010. D. Casey Affleck)
The notorious Joaquin Phoenix ‘documentary’ about his decision to quit acting and become a rap star.
While Phoenix is on screen, and that is 99% of the film, there is time (a lot of time, lots of time) to think other thoughts, or connected thoughts, like ‘wrestling’. We know wrestling is set up to look brutal, tough and realistic, pounding an opponent, or leg-choking him or her, while it is all contrived to make the wrestler a hero in the eyes of the fans. They also have ‘Celebrity Wrestling’. This is something of what I’m Still Here is like.
Of course, there is the basic question that journalists and movie buffs have been asking for two years or more. Is this story of Joaquin Phoenix and his dramatic career change really true? Has it been a hoax (and this question gets a lot of play in the film)? Then there is the key question that a reporter asks, ‘Who cares?’. There are many repetitions of aggro sequences and many more lulls when the response surges, ‘I don’t’.
If Phoenix had not been a member of his famous family and if he had not been a movie star, could this bulky, wildly-bearded, semi-articulate oaf be intrinsically interesting?
Then, one spends time going through the alphabet to see if there are any funny variations on mockumentary or rockumentary. There are some vulgar ones. Perhaps zonkumentary might work but trickumentary, which this is, seems a little tame (and working out that the documentary on Chinese cooking could be a wokumentary, or the teenage acne study, pockumentary...).
Back to the film, what else is there to see and think about? Celebrity, mainly. Instant celebrity in a reality TV age and Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame. Why so much interest in Joaquin Phoenix or in his alleged career change – after all, he hadn’t given up showbiz to save the world? Why the entertainment industry hyperhype? Why the crowds at his (execrable) concert in Florida? Why the stalking paparazzi and yaparazzi? The only answer the film offers is a sense of bewilderment – though the whole charade was highly organised and promoted over the years.
And Phoenix is not an especially interesting or likeable person on this evidence. You really wouldn’t have wanted to meet him at this phase of his life – though the contrivance moves finally to picturing him as tragic as he ponders it all.
There are some compensations. David Letterman is hilarious with Phoenix as a reluctant, laconic, gum-chewing guest as is Ben Stiller’s impersonation of the hirsute, taciturn Phoenix at the Oscars.
And the end. Back to the home movie that opened the film, Panama 1981, and little Leif Phoenix being persuaded to take the plunge from a rock into a waterfall pool. Now big, older Joaquin immerses himself and swims underwater (his new womb for rebirthing), then a long, very long, very long take, camera following his shirtless back until he submerges again – to go back to acting? - (though it looks as though he never left it while making this film).
Casey Affleck (married to Summer Phoenix) obviously has directing talent with lots of camera set-ups so studied that they are for a fiction (even spontaneous vomiting sequences), the fiction of and behind the celebrity scenes.
THE LAST AIRBENDER
(US, 2010, d. M. Night Shyamalan)
Reading the vociferous and negative comments on The Last Airbender by would-be reviewer bloggers on the Internet Movie Database, I was glad that I had never seen an episode of the animation series on which this live-action film is based. It was entitled Avatar, but James Cameron must have been quicker to obtain the movie copyright on that title.
Whether it lives up to the television series or whether it is a desecration of it, I cannot say and am rather glad that I have not seen it so can comment on the film as a film. Actually, that is even a bit hard because the writer-director, M. Night Shyamalan, has been falling further and further out of critical and public favour with each film that he makes. He did hit the jackpot with The Sixth Sense which has become a classic of psychological thrillers. Since then he has directed Unbreakable, Signs, The Village, Lady in the Water, The Happening and The Last Airbender. Generally, I have quite enjoyed his films as I did this one, allowing that this is geared towards a niche audience, say 8-14 year olds. The other thing one has to make allowances for is some of the cornily inappropriate contemporary American expressions (with the Waterbenders shouting ‘Hey, guys...’ and everyone checking out the situation with ‘OK?;). Since the Firebenders look and speak like Indians (which the main actors are, as is, originally, the director himself) and they are the villains, then it makes the goodies sound very American. Oh, and there is another allowance to be made. The film was converted to 3D after production so there is minimal 3D effect.
That said, it is a fantasy that relies heavily on eastern religions and traditions rather than Christianity (as does the Narnia series with which there are some comparisons). The young Avatar himself (Noah Rigger) looks very much the head-shaven young Buddhist monk, even looking like Kundun and those stories of the search for the present Dalai Lama. He is also adept, as are some of the other benders, in martial arts. It would be interesting to hear from Buddhists whether the connections are deep or only surface resemblances.
We are in a world of four nations, Air, Earth, Fire and Water. The Fire Nation is conquering Earth and Water, having vanquished the Air Nation, except the young boy who has run away and been hidden for a hundred years and now emerges, the Avatar, the one who has links with the spirit world and is Lord. While he becomes the Lord by the end of the film, the sequel (the Fire Nation strikes back) is clearly heralded.
Not that much of a plot as the nations do battle and the Fire Nation tries to destroy or control the Avatar. A Fire prince (Dev Patel, the Slumdog Millionnaire) wants to capture the Avatar to make an impression on his father who has wiped him off as a weakling. The Avatar is rescued and saved by a young man and a girl from Water.
So, chases and fights, special effects, especially fire battling water, some strange creatures and an excursion into a fantasy land which is somewhat different from the better known worlds of recent cinema imagination.
It won’t capture a large audience of adults or older teenagers, though they might like it.
THE LEAST OF THESE
(US, 2008, d. Nathan Scoggins)
A film which received little cinema release (strange, given its talked-about topic) but has gained wider audiences through DVD and television screenings.
It is often advertised that a film is taken from today’s headlines. This could be said of The Least of These. And, for those who immediately recognise Jesus’ words about children and about scandal, they would realise that we are in the drama of sexual abuse. While this is a rather melodramatic treatment of a number of related themes as well, it is not without interest, given the contemporary climate on the issue.
It seems to be set in a Catholic school and viewers have interpreted it that way. However, the school and the chapel do not have any Catholic pictures, statues or iconic props and the final credits indicate that there was some strong Lutheran input into the making of the film. Be that as it may, it is still a relevant story, with violent implications which makes one realise that such vengeance against a priest abuser has not been the order of the day.
A young priest, Fr Andre (Isaiah Washington) who had been a student at the school, comes back to join the staff after being absent from the diocese (Colorado) for two years. His predecessor has disappeared. Andre is welcomed by the priest rector of the school (Robert Loggia), is treated warily by the disciplinarian (Bob Gunton) and in a friendly way by the other priest on the staff (John Billingsley). The boys are another matter, typical of boarders at any school, nominally religious but mainly not, while conforming to the rules of the school. Andre manages to settle in, dealing with the priests, trying to assess and relate to the boys, puzzling about the disappearance of Fr Collins. A rich boy, Jason Boyd (Andrew Lawrence) who is a champion at sport is quite hostile, especially when Fr Andre, who reaches religion and has a great belief in prayer, asks the boys to compose their own and he parodies the Lord’s Prayer. There is another reclusive boy who spends a lot of time in the chapel and is wary of talking.
We soon realise that he is one student who has been abused. Some of the boys search sealed off basement offices and it soon emerges that Fr Collins has been killed and the quiet boy is under suspicion. The media, needless to say, make a great deal out of the case, filming Fr Andre trying to put them off, then raising accusing suspicions about his behaviour. The audience shares in a number of discussions amongst the priests and how the situation should be handled.
Unless we have been involved personally with a victim of clerical sexual abuse, we are influenced by media headlines, articles, television and radio programs. It is helpful, even if hard, to see the issues dramatised. The plot here has a few unexpected twists which makes the abuse by Fr Collins more harrowing, his murder comprehensible and the cover-up alarming. Fr Andre’s life is also more complicated – suffice to say that he had been a whistleblower on a former case, with a close friend suspended and hounded, only to discover that the whole affair had been fabricated by a child and parents. This sub-plot offer s a sobering reminder of different scenarios in different cases.
Isaiah Washington brings quite some dignity and presence to the character of Fr Andre. The three other priests are seen in different lights by the end of the film.
Not a great film by any means, but one which is watchable and throws dramatic (and melodramatic) light on scandals which have revealed more victims than one would have realised, more perpetrators than one would have ever imagined and a call for churches, religions and secular society and institutions to examine their consciences.
THE OTHER GUYS
(US, 2010, d. Adam Mc Kay)
I had a smile on my face most of the time watching The Other Guys, but it is all rather silly, maybe too silly for some.
The real guys make an initial appearance, Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson, ace detectives for whom no feat is too difficult and who are police vanity personified. They depend on those who push pencils (or computer keys anyway) at desks, the other guys. Then they indulge in a derring-do stunt, leaping from a building – miscalculating, leaving two detective openings, a chance for the other guys to go out and confront the criminals.
This is a Will Ferrell film. Most of the time, I find him very funny, especially when he creates characters who are rather vain but become the butt of comedy (Ron Burgundy, Blades of Glory, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers). Sometimes he is not so funny at all and rather hard to take. His Allen Gamble here is, for me, one of his best. He is a buttoned up police accountant who loves his job and is meticulous, that is Meticulous with a capital M. He is paired in the office with Mark Wahlberg who has shot a star baseballer (Derek Jeter as himself) and is trigger happy at his desk. Michael Keaton is their boss. The others in the squad take every opportunity to mock.
You’ve guessed it. Out they go on a case and get into all kinds of scrapes (and get out of them as well) which gives the opportunity to both stage chases and shootouts as well as send them up. While you think Wahlberg is giving a one-note performance, he suddenly does some ballet pirouettes (though he had learnt them at school to mock the gay students). Then Allen Gimble is given a back-story so opposite to what he seems that you can’t believe it, but it has its funny moments. Wahlberg also discovers that Ferrell is married to a doctor – who turns out to be ultra-glamorous (Eva Mendes) but acts like a suburban housewife.
There are also lots of funny one-liners, especially in slinging off at the movies.
Steve Coogan appears as a dodgy financier pursued by Anne Heche and her former SAS assistant who tries to abduct him and keeps tangling with the ‘other guys’.
It is funny, immediately forgettable, but reminds us that when Will Ferrell is good, he can be very good.
(France, 2008, d. Diane Kurys)
It’s best to give a warning first of all. This is an edited version for cinemas of a mini-series produced for French television. Almost an hour has gone from the series for the film – which explains the lack of development of some characters (Sagan’s first husband) and surprise events (the burning of her house) which makes some aspects of the film less than satisfactory and creates some puzzles. Better to watch the series if possible.
On the other hand, audiences may not be all that interested in the life and character of French novelist and playwright Francoise Quoirez who took the pen-name of Sagan when her parents didn’t want her to be known by their name. With the novel that she wrote during a summer holiday, Sagan became instantly famous with Bonjour Tristese at the age of nineteen, something of a cause de scandale because of the themes and the relationships portrayed. This was the middle of the 1950s. She also wrote A Certain Smile and Au Revoir Brahms during the 1950s. Though there is no mention of them in this cinema version of Sagan, Bonjour Tristesse, A Certain Smile (with the popular theme song from Johnny Matthis) became successful Hollywood blockbusters and Au Revoir, Brahms was filmed with Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Perkins as Goodbye, Again in the early 1960s. So, she was not just a French icon but was well-known in the United States.
Critics referred to her work as minor music. And that is a difficulty for this film. Her life itself is really only minor music, at least as it comes across here. She was an unhappy young woman and an unhappy older woman, involved in all kinds of relationships, the most successful not being her marriages (one to a homosexual) but her relationships with women. She made a great deal of money but let it slip through her fingers extravagantly and at the end of her life had the indignity of a tax evasion case. She did gather a following around her. Some liked her a lot, some were just hangers on.
Sylvie Testud is a wonderful French actress (La Vie en Rose, Lourdes) and is said to resemble Sagan. She gives a fine performance, with all the nuances of both Sagan’s flamboyance and moodiness. Though Francoise Sagan received a tribute from President Francois Mitterand, who did refer to her talent but also called her a monster, citing her as a national figure, unless you are French and patriotic or enamoured of her writings, this is minor music.
(Australia, 2010, d. Richard Gray)
The countryside of Victoria has never looked so good. They don’t make many films set in Mildura or Red Cliff, but here is the opportunity to see one. This is a beautiful film to look at.
It is often said that Australian films are ‘quirky’, which usually means that they are slightly off-kilter with amusing situations and sometimes bemusing characters. Summer Coda is not quirky in that sense. Rather, it might be described as ‘European’. This refers to its look, its unhurried pace (a film not afraid of rather longer silences between characters, letting the audience stay with close-ups without words and do their own reflections without rush), its portrait of characters in landscapes, its serious look at relationships, its expectations that audiences will bring an adult sensibility to the story.
Rather surprisingly, the film begins and ends with brief scenes set in Nevada (shot in California). We are introduced to Heidi (Rachel Taylor), an enigmatic young woman who is playing the violin alone at home. (The soundtrack is frequently violin music with some piano.) She seems to make a decision suddenly and is on a plane, arriving in Melbourne, hitching her way to Mildura.
Heidi wants to get to her father’s funeral, burdened by too few memories of him as well as years of disappointment at the distance between them. On the way, she gets a lift from Michael, an orange grower from Red Cliff (Alex Dimitriades fine in a better role than he is usually given). We don’t learn much about his back story until later in the film.
The funeral brings its own tensions, especially with Heidi’s father’s wife (Suzie Porter). Heidi takes refuge with Mike in the days before she returns to America.
Much of the latter part of the film is spent in the orange groves, picking, talking, working and relaxing, as a group of Mike’s old friends turn up for harvesting the oranges. (It is all so agreeable in the sun, near the river, camping out, genial company for the work that it could serve as an advertising enticement for casual fruit-picking in the region.) There is a long set piece, much like those meals always to be found in French films, where we spend a lot of time listening to the talk and getting to know the characters.
And that is what we do. The supporting cast make Mike’s friends become quite distinct and idiosyncratic as we get to know them. But, with compliments to Richard Gray’s writing and direction (his first feature film) and the engaging performances from Rachel Taylor and Alex Dimitriades who create persons we can be interested in and care about, Heidi and Mike are substantial characters with strong emotions to help them develop aims for their lives.
The action takes place over the summer – and there is reference to a coda, music composed by Heidi’s father, left in a box of memories for her.
TOMORROW WHEN THE WAR BEGAN
(Australia, 2010, d. Stuart Beattie)
A book that has been read widely through school syllabus listing – but one that has been very popular, a good choice for a movie. John Marsden has written a Tomorrow series of books (1993-1999) as well as a series about his central character, Ellie, The Ellie Chronicles (2003-2006).. And this seems to have paid off as the opening week in Australia saw box-office of over four million dollars. The readers must have wanted to see how the film turned out, and don’t seem to have been disappointed.
Writer and director, Stuart Beattie, who started writing screenplays at home in the 1990s but then found success in Hollywood with Pirates of the Caribbean, Collateral, G.I. Joe and other action films, inserts a line in his film when one character has been reading (yes, reading) Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career and her friend asks her if she likes it. Better than the film, she says. And the friend replies that the film is never as good as the book!
It’s very much an older teenage movie as it opens. In the country town of Wirrawee (filmed in the Hunter Valley with excursions into the Blue Mountains), some of the high schoolers want to go camping during the show weekend. They spend some time organising seven for the trip. For the boys, there is one of Greek descent, another Asian. The girls are much of a muchness, although one is wealthy and pampered, another is devoutly religious. One is in a relationship with the third boy. The leader is Ellie (Caitlin Stasey, convincing). While on their trip, they chatter and banter, with some touches of the hormones, and the visual style is often that of television commercials for this age audience. No problems in the target audience identifying with the characters. There is the jock (Lincoln Lewis) who proves himself a touch cowardly but redeems himself. There is the Greek clown (in the Australian humorous tradition of Wogboys) who has more in him than smart remarks and pratfalls (Deniz Akdeniz) and there is the intelligent young student who works in his family’s Asian restaurant (Chris Pang).
Robyn (Ashleigh Cummings) is dominated by her religious father (some Catholic images in their house) but has to make some moral decisions as the group becomes more involved in the war. Fiona has a dominating, image-driven mother who tends to put her down with the result that she is more sheltered and ignorant than everyone thinks (Phoebe Tonkin is persuasive). British Rachel Hurd- Wood is Ellie’s best friend, Corrie.
We know that there is a war as the film opens with Ellie speaking to camera and narrating what has happened. What has happened is an invasion from a neighbouring Asian country, the adults rounded up and patrols moving around the town as well as planes flying overhead and helicopter surveillance.
The bewildered youngsters, and the audience with them, take step by step to find out what has happened. Ultimately, there are some explanations given as to how the invasion was able to be a surprise (to do with ports, container ships and weapons).
The film improves when they discover the war. At least, it moves from a teenage movie popular at the multiplex to a more complex and interesting story of a group of young people, inexperienced but using some savvy, worried by the dilemmas they have to face (including killing the enemy), moving into resistance mode (and joined by a stoner, Chris (Andy Ryan) who has been left behind by his parents). They certainly do some heroic manoeuvres (and there are some entertaining garbage collection truck and huge petrol tanker chases, expert effects and pyrotechnics), but they also make mistakes (especially with a suspenseful episode where their plan is in danger when mobiles have been switched off and Ellie and Fiona become absorbed in girl talk).
Very few adults appear in the film, some parents and, later, the local dentist helping the wounded Lee, played by Colin Friels.
The plot resembles Red Dawn, a 1984 movie with Patrick Swayze about youngsters forming resistance in an invasion. It has been re-made this year in the US (with Australians Chris Hemsworth and Isabel Lucas in the cast). But, Tomorrow is firmly Australian in locations (and flags), accents and the always topical issue of whether the continent, with its resources, can accommodate a greater population (sustainable or not) within the context of the masses of people in neighbouring Asian countries.
There is also a topical message inserted at one point. Just as we might be thinking that this is what it might have been like had the Japanese landed in 1942 and taken over the land, Ellie notices a fresco on a wall with the British authorities taking over and a glimpse of aboriginal people watching this invasion with puzzlement.