SIGNIS REVIEWS OCTOBER 2018
HEARTS BEAT LOUD
HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS, The
I AM PAUL WALKER
IN LIKE FLYNN
JOHNNY ENGLISH STRIKES AGAIN
LADIES IN BLACK
THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS
SIMPLE FAVOUR, A
YOU WERE NEVER REALLY THERE
WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?
US, 2018, 96 minutes, Colour.
Kodi Smit Mc Phee, Johannes Haukur Johannesson.
Directed by Albert Hughes.
Over the decades there has been a cinema interest in prehistory including Quest for Fire and The Cave of the Clan Bear from a story by Jean Auel. The storyline of this film is more simple and straightforward.
This is a film that is seen best in the cinema, on a large and wide screen. The cinematography is impressive and striking, prehistoric landscapes, mountains and cliffs, lakes and rivers, the different seasons, snow and ice as well as the primitive village of the humans in Europe, 20,000 years ago. The landscapes were filmed in Canada, the province of Alberta.
The film opens with the men of the tribe assembling, crawling on the ground towards a herd of bison, then an attack, frightening scenes of terrified animals falling over cliffs, the role of the warriors especially when a young man is held by an animal and tossed over the cliff. Prehistoric times were not genteel.
The film then goes into flashback, focusing on the young man, a teenager, Keda (an impressive performance and screen presence by Australian Kodi Smit Mc Phee). There are initiation rituals, some young men failing, others sharpening spearheads showing their priowess and for future use.
The main part of the film is the lone journey of survival for Keda. He finds water. He eats worms for sustenance. His leg is injured and he grinds herbs to make poultices for his recovery. He is pursued by a pack of wolves and takes refuge in a tree – but, one of the wolves is injured and he shares cave with the wolf, overcoming the snarling with some kindness, suggestions of empathy between the wolf and the human, Keda offering him water, hunting a rabbit and then sharing food.
Keda’s father has explained to him leadership in the tribe, the literal Alpha male – and Keda gives this name to the wolf.
The two travel together, discover a man frozen in the ice, Keda falling through the ice and Alpha helping in the rescue, confrontations with a giant bear-like beast – and the desperation of hunger as they move through the winter, snow and ice.
The film is impressive in many ways, directed by Albert Hughes (whose previous films were with his brother, Allen Hughes, Dead Presidents, From Hell, The Book of Eli). It also has an international cast with leads from Iceland in Poland.
So, an imaginative and speculative reflection on pre-history and evolutionary developments as well as human/canine bonding (which is taking the place of the rather exclusivist language of dogs as Man’s Best Friend).
UK, 2017, 107 minutes, Colour.
Jesse Buckley, Johnny Flynn, Geraldine James.
Directed by Michael Pearce.
Certainly, a blunt and frightening title.
This might be described as a psychological horror film, not of the blood and gore type, the sense of this is implied rather than visualised, but a study of character, of characters, of their potential for being beasts.
The setting is the island of Jersey, attractive locations of beach, cliffs, villages. But, very soon into the opening of the film, we see memorials to young women who have been killed. It seems that over the years there have been a number of abductions and murders, wariness about a serial killer. This is the background to the story of Moll (a quite intense performance by Jessie Buckley), a young woman who lives with her mother, sings in the choir which is conducted by her mother, is a tourist guide for busloads of visitors to Jersey. But, we appreciate immediately that there is quite some edge to Moll.
As we learn more about Moll, the demands made on her by her mother, a powerful performance by Geraldine James, we find that she was homeschooled after a violent incident, allegedly bullying of Moll and her response with a pair of scissors. Her mother wants to make sure that all the evil is removed from her daughter. To that end she throws a lavish party but her sister one-ups her by announcing the she is pregnant with twins. Moll is also required to babysit her brother’s daughter whom she likes but sometimes forgets as she goes out, her mother making her confess to selfishness.
She has a wild side too, going to parties and dances. But, near a cave on the beach, she is rescued from an aggressive young man by a local, Pascal (Johnny Flynn). She is immediately attracted to him. He is a handyman, poacher, has been in prison, is quite direct in talking to Moll’s mother.
The immediate drama in the story is that there was an abduction and murder on the night of Moll’s party. A local Portuguese migrant is suspected. But what about Pascal and his past? And what about Moll and her inner violence?
The director has made the point that this film is not so much an investigation into the abductions and murders, certainly the work of a killer with beastly instincts, but it is more of an investigation into the psyche of Moll, her attraction towards Pascal, whether she is suspicious of him or not, whether her love for him is dangerous because of her suspicions.
Because of this, Beast is an interesting psychological portrait of a disturbed young woman, her alienation from her family (making a toast at one stage to her family and declaring that she forgives them), her somewhat reckless love for the mysterious Pascal.
US, 2018, 114 minutes, Colour.
Steve Carrel, Timothee Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan, Christian Convery, Oakley Bull.
Directed by Felix van Groeningen.
Watching this film is a demanding, indeed a sobering, experience. The title sounds gentle – and the familiar song is played throughout the film. However, it is a film about addictions, relapses and recovery, the relationship between a father and a son.
The film opens tellingly with a focus on David Shef, an impressive performance by Steve Carrel, proving that not only can he do comedy expertly, but he is a very serious actor as well. David Shef is talking about his bewilderment, his not understanding the son whom he thought he knew and loved so well, an 18-year-old who has become involved in drugs which have taken over his life. Audiences will immediately identify with him as a father driven to search for his son and will be remembering any friends or family in similar situations.
In fact, the film is based on books by David Shef himself as well as his son Nic. For those who do not know this, the final critical climax for Nic is all the more dramatic because the audience is uncertain as to what will happen.
The film goes back one year but, throughout the screenplay, many flashbacks are inserted, not necessarily signalled but the film leaving it to the audience to realise the shifts in time and memory for both father and son.
There are many photos of father and son, especially when he was a charming boy in his early teens. And, there are many glimpses and memories of this time throughout the film. However, during the main action, Nic is 18. He is played most convincingly by Timothee Chalamet (Call Me by Your Name, Lady Bird). The film lets the audience know that David has been long divorced from his wife, Vicki (Amy Ryan) but that he has custody of his son. There are tense moments and phone calls between mother and father as exasperation increases and there are growing awarenesses of responsibilities.
David has married again, and receives strong support from Karen (Maura Tierney) and they have children of their own who see Nic as their brother, devoted to him.
David seeks advice, researches addiction, especially crystal meth, appreciates the mood changes and their suddenness, is helped by an expert with diagrams of the brain and the effect of drugs, even prepared to experiment to appreciate what his son experiences. There is a scene where the father and son share pot, the father remembering his experimentation but not wanting his son to experiment at all.
And, as might be expected, there are many harrowing sequences, Nic at home and rebelling against his father’s control, leaving home, his father rescuing him in the rain at a dingy drug rendezvous, his going into rehab, relapsing. There are some moments of peace when Nic seems to have overcome the habit, works in the rehab, graduates from college. But, whatever the black hole that he declares is at the core of himself, his life is also one of relapse. He takes up with the girl who overdoses.
The film raises the question as to whether anyone is able to help an addict, whether it has to be the choice of the addict rather than a curer. And, by the end, David is desperate, a powerful scene where Karen pursues Nic in her car and stops angry but helpless. Nic goes into the depths.
The film is very powerful as drama. The performances are well worth seeing. Statistics are given at the end concerning the prevalence of drug suicides, the need for rehabilitation but it seeming difficult if not impossible. However, as noted, this film is based on actual stories and recovery.
UK, 2018, 104 minutes, Colour.
Ewan Mc Gregor, Hayley Atwell, Brontë Carmichael, Mark Gattis, Oliver Ford Davies. Voices of: Jim Cummings, Brad Garrett, Sophie Okonedo, Peter Capaldi, Toby Jones.
Directed by Marc Forster.
There has been quite some cinema interest in the life and writings of the British A.A.Milne, his experience of World War I, rather shell-shocked, his coping and not coping, his relationship with his wife, a rather dominating presence, and his love for his son, Christopher Robin. And Milne created a location, a Hundred Acre forest inhabited by a range of characters who from the 1920s endeared themselves to British children and then to children worldwide. The main character, so well-known, is the toy bear, Winnie the Pooh.
This was all the subject of the 2017 film, Goodbye Christopher Robin, with Domnhall Gleeson as Milne and Margot Robbie as his wife. The end of that film did move into World War II and some of the experiences of Christopher Robin.
Here we are again in Milne country. However, the focus is on Christopher Robin himself. We are introduced to the boy and Winnie the Pooh and the other characters as they farewell Christopher Robin and his leaving home. This gives the audience the chance to look at and, especially, listen to the voices of the range of characters from Eeyore, Rabbit, Piglet, Kanga, Roo, Owl… Jim Cummings is especially convincing, in the low key voice and delivery, as Pooh.
But, the main action takes place after the end of the war in which Christopher Robin served. He is married, has a daughter, still lives in the family house outside London but is hard at work doing efficiency jobs for a luggage company. He is busy, over-worked, taking the job home with him, not spending enough time with his wife and daughter as he should.
This, of course, is reminiscent of those many films about the busy father and his neglect of family and the need for his eyes and heart to be opened. In fact, a film that comes to mind from a quarter of a century earlier is Steven Spielberg’s Hook. In this film it is Peter Pan who is caught up in the busy adult world gets the opportunity to go back to Neverland and discover his inner child.
Ewan Mc Gregor is Christopher Robin. Sitting in the forest one day he is approached by Pooh – rather irritating in his insistence on wanting honey and having stomach rumbles! But he tantalises Christopher, accompanies him on his travels to work, is prone to get lost, wants some more honey but, for a time, is contented with a red balloon. Because Christopher needs to get his homework done for the company, he takes Pooh back to the Hundred Acre forest and, rather impatiently and irritably at first, meets again all those old friends.
While this is the story of Pooh and the others, it is also the story of Christopher Robin and his daughter, his encounter with her, frantically travelling to London with her father’s briefcase and his papers, an amusing but disastrous taxi ride, with the others being bounced about in a box banging the London streets.
The ending is never in doubt. It is just the interest in the way in which it will happen, Christopher Robin getting a brainwave about how to improve the luggage business. (Answer, create opportunities where everybody can go on holidays not just the wealthy, and they will all buy luggage!). And there is an amusing song with everybody at the beach during the final credits highlighting this.
(For those who were introduced to Winnie the Pooh’s world as children, the film would be most engaging. For those who were not, it may (as for this reviewer) take rather a long time to get used to characters who had not been endearing from childhood.)
CUSTODY/ JUSQU'A LA GARDE
France, 2017, 93 minutes, Colour.
Lea Drucker, Dennis Menochet, Thomas Gioria.
Directed by Xavier Legrand.
The original French title is not exactly the same as custody. It translates with an overtone of duelling and fight, “to the hilt”.
The English title, Custody, is to the fore right from the beginning of the film, lawyers representing children. Initially, the husband seems somewhat sympathetic, steady job, saying he has reformed. The wife does look the worse for wear. They have a daughter, Josephine, turning 18, a boy aged about 12. The decision for the case is made when a lawyer reads out a letter from the boy, Julian, stating his dislike for his father, not wanting to be with him, upset with his father’s violent treatment of his mother.
The audience sees something of the background of the family, especially the daughter and her boyfriend, her skipping classes, the preparation for her birthday party. But, Antoine, the father, makes an appearance. There is a very upsetting sequence where Antoine virtually abducts his son, travels in the car, demands that his son look at him, the son refusing and weeping. While Antoine has some momentary relenting, he shows that he does not understand why his wife has left him, why she would stop contact with him, prevent his children seeing him.
There is a rather long scene of the birthday party, exuberant friends and relatives, loud music with a beat, Josephine singing a song. Julian is enjoying the party. However, Antoine turns up outside in the car park, stating that he has a gift for his daughter, badgering his wife, declaring his love for her, jealous on hearing that she is seeing someone else, violent.
In fact, the screenplay is fairly straightforward, offering some key sequences in the interactions, culminating in an alarming, frightening episode where mother and son are in their apartment, Antoine continually rings the bell in the middle of the night, breaks in, with a rifle, bellowing and bashing the doors. Interestingly, the neighbour rings the police and, while a squad is on the way to the apartment block, an officer keeps online with the mother, giving directions, telling them to hide in the bath tub, locking and blockading the door…
In an English play on words the film ends with a different meaning for Custody. Antoine is in custody.
A harrowing French illustration of universal domestic violence, violence against women, wives and mothers.
US, 2018, 141 minutes, Colour.
Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Pablo Schreiber, Christopher Abbott, Kyle Chandler, Ciaran Hinds, Ethan Embry, Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll, Shea Wiggin, Patrick Fugit, Lucas Haas, Olivia Hamilton.
Directed by Damien Chazelle.
Films about space exploration have been very popular – and award-winning. In the early 1980s, audiences were taken back to the first flights in space, The Right Stuff. In the 1990s, there was disaster and success in Apollo 13. More recently, there was the story of the African-American? women working behind the scenes – and moving in front of the scenes, Hidden Figures. Now comes a quite spectacular film about the journey to the moon.
First Man is about as close as most of us will ever get to space exploration. And, it does not fail its audience in immersing them in the experience. In the first few minutes, we are in the cockpit of a plane with Neil Armstrong, a very serious Ryan Gosling, being battered about as he breaks the sound barrier (with a rather adverse comment about his experience of landing in the desert by pioneer of sound barrier breaking, Chuck Yeager). It is 1961.
The screenplay follows the journey of Neil Armstrong from this 1961 flight to his standing on the moon, that the Eagle has landed, and that he was taking one small step…
The film is doing two things. It is often a portrait of Armstrong himself, as an engineer, as a pilot, as a man who was enthusiastic about the US getting to the moon. We see him interviewed, training, blacking out during an experiment but wanting to go again, respected by the NASA authorities, their sending him to represent them at the White House, choosing him to be the leader of the Apollo journey to the moon.
The other portrait that the film is offering is very personal. There is his marriage to his wife, Janet, a strong-minded Claire Foy was not backward in being forthright about what she thinks and what she expects of her husband and children. There is the sadness, very early in the film, of his young daughter with a tumour and doctors unable to do anything for her. Images of his daughter will recur in various moments during the film, most potently on the surface of the moon itself when he leaves his daughter’s bracelet. Neil Armstrong is friendly in a reserved kind of way, speaking iin low key to press conferences (refusing to be drawn on how excited he was in being chosen for his mission and reiterating that he was “pleased”). There is also sadness in the accidents and deaths of some of the men close to him.
For those of an engineering disposition, for those of complex technical disposition, First Man will be fascinating. For audiences less technical, many of the scenes may well prove overwhelming.
However, it is almost half a century since the moon landing, a singular event in world history that is worth commemorating, for remembering for those who around at the time, some American history worth knowing for those for whom these events are well in the past.
Directed by Damien Chazelle who made an impact with his film about music, Whiplash, and then won an Oscar for directing La La Land. First Man, with its technical know-how, seems rather surprising follow-up to his other films.
Australia, 2018, 96 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Ben Lawrence.
This is not quite the documentary that might have been imagined from the title.
In fact, there is an introduction to Jason King, a Sydney man in his 40s, who has set himself up to hunt ghosts, fielding applications to visit homes, sensing a strange presence, even hostile presence, and ridding the house of it. Clients are grateful. Jason is proud of his work, the title appearing on his T-shirt as well as on the side of his car.
But, this is something like a Mc Guffin in an Alfred Hitchcock movie – a focus of attention while the real story is elsewhere. Or, perhaps, not exactly like a Mc Guffin but a metaphor for what the film is really doing.
British-born director, Ben Lawrence, saw an advertisement for the Ghosthunter and rang Jason. Jason agreed to an interview – and interviews continued for the next six years, from 2010 to 2016. There are also many interviews with Jason’s sister, friends from childhood days, social workers, a policewoman.
This is the kind of film where a reviewer needs to note Spoiler alert. As happened with this reviewer’s viewing of the film, knowing nothing, it proved to be an intriguing detective story, step-by-step unfolding a mystery. It is sharing Ben Lawrence’s quest through his interviews with Jason. It is sharing Jason’s discovery about himself and about his family, recovering memories, disturbing memories, even most disturbing memories.
In that sense, the film is a psychological case study. Ben Lawrence asks many questions, take steps on behalf of Jason to delve into his past. He also advises him, ultimately, to seek out counselling because, as some of the memories surface, as Jason revisits locations from the past, is involved with a childhood friend, a forthright woman called Cathy, an abusive past emerges. Jason has not always been direct with Ben Lawrence either, and has some of his own inner ghosts or demons to encounter.
What begins like a somewhat tongue-in-cheek look at, even exposure, of the ghosthunter at work with his hand-picked team, soon becomes far more intriguing and well worth a visit.
HEARTS BEAT LOUD
US, 2018, 97 minutes, Colour.
Nick Offerman, Kiersey Clemons, Ted Danson, Toni Collette, Sasha Lane, Blythe Danner.
Directed by Brett Haley.
This is one of those films which an audience would enjoy if they came across unexpectedly but is not one that they would necessarily seek out. Which means then that it would have more of a life and a wider audience on television and downloading.
It is a New York story, a veteran member of a band, Frank, running a shop full of vinyl records, a tribute to the past. He is played by Nick Offerman, seen on television in Parks and Recreation, often a villain on screen. Gently gruff, bearded, a life with many regrets, he is a sympathetic character here.
While the story of the film does focus on life in the shop, there is also a domestic side of the story, especially with his daughter, Sam (sympathetic Kiersey Clemons) who wants to go to UCLA to study medicine, to chart a new life away from home. She and her father are grieving at the accidental death of her mother 10 years earlier. There is also a complication, seen sympathetically from the point of view of her father and the screenwriter, in her relationship with an artist friend, Alice (Sasha Lane).
The other central character in the film is played by Toni Collette, Leslie, who owns the building in which the shop is stored, is a friend for Frank, buying records, even offering to go in partnership for the survival of the shop.
There is quite some emotion in a sequence where, on the last day of sales in the shop, father and daughter do an extensive gig for the customers – and for the cinema audience.
So, it is a story of interactions, a father loving his daughter and wanting her to stay, to compse music with him because she has a great flair for songwriting, of having to let her go, of acknowledging the different stages in the development of music in the US, of having to face a future as he gets older – and confiding with his good friend who manages a bar, Dave (a sympathetic Ted Danson), strong memories of his wife, uncertain of his future.
There is quite some appeal through the story and the characters – perhaps more familiar from characters in television series. But, if you chance upon Hearts Beat Loud, there is good enjoyment.
I AM PAUL WALKER
US, 2018, 90 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Adrian Buitenhuis.
According to all the talking heads in this documentary about actor, Paul Walker, who died tragically in a car crash and a consequent inferno in 2013, Paul Walker was a nice guy. His family certainly agree. Friends definitely agree. And this is endorsed by co-stars in his films.
Paul Walker was born in 1968. As a child he had some roles in television commercials and television series. He had a younger sister, Ashley. And a little brother, Cody, to whom he was devoted, 15 years younger than he was. Both Ashley and Cody contribute their praise to this film. Both his mother and father speak highly of him.
Writer-director Adrian Buitenhuis has previously made I Am Heath Ledger, using a process of offering biography, home movie clips, selections from films, testimony of those who knew the subject. It serves as an effective formula for this kind of cinema portrait – and so it is here.
Paul Walker was an outgoing person, very friendly, and definitely a man of action. In fact, the film suggests that he would have preferred to be involved in these outgoing activities, surfing, driving, and in later years, contributing to shark tagging. Plenty of clips to back this up.
There is information that a lot of this activity is rather hereditary – military serving grandfather, a father who served in Vietnam.
But, what about the film career? He had the opportunity to be cast in some dramas in the late 90s, Pleasantville, a jock in Varsity Blues, The Skulls – directed by Rob Cohen who became friends with him and auditioned him for the first Fast and furious film. And probably that is what Paul Walker is best known for, the range of Fast and Furious features where he plays an undercover cop exposing rackets in illegal races. As the series went on – and he is not in all of them – the films became bigger, more spectacular, even a touch of the bloated! But, this was the kind of film that the fans wanted, demanded, received.
The film offers a lot of speculation, including interviews with the star himself, about whether he wanted to continue as a film star or wanted to move back into the blend of relaxation and sport and social action. His daughter was born when he was rather young, grew up with her mother in Hawaii. At 15, she opted to live with her father and he was devoted to her.
This biography is for a niche audience, those who are interested in the life of film stars, their background and their career. Paul Walker was a star more than an actor and so his biography is that of a phenomenon, a celebrity, rather than a study.
(For those who are interested in the psychology of Carl Jung and his Personality Types, especially as applied in the work of Katherine Briggs and Isabel Myers, The Myers Brings Type Indicator, from this film, it would emerge that Paul Walker would identify with ESTP, this documentary providing a case study.)
IN LIKE FLYNN
Australia, 2018, 97 minutes, Colour.
Thomas Cocquerel, Cory Large, William Moseley, Clive Standen, Callan Mulvey, David Wenham, David Hennessey, Isabel Lucas, Grace Huang, Costas Mandylor, Lochlyin Munro, Dan Fogler.
Directed by Russell Mulcahy.
Is Errol Flynn household name? The phrase which is the title of the film has entered into the English language, a linguistic memorial, so to speak, to Errol Flynn. So, it depends on knowledge of and/or interest in Flynn as to how engaging this film is.
For those in the know, Errol Flynn was from Tasmania and in his 20s lived an adventurous life. And this is the subject of this film, Errol Flynn before Hollywood and international success.
The screenplay gets down to things instantly. Here is Flynn leading a small expedition, travelling into almost-forbidden territory along Papua New Guinea’s Sepik River, locals working with him as carriers and guides, but a Hollywood producer with his cameraman trying to get exotic footage. They get more than they bargained for, painted headhunters attack them; they go beyond forbidden boundaries, decapitated heads, parts of bodies hanging from the trees, more than a touch of blood and gore, arrows, wounds, falling over cliffs, finally escaping the deadly dangers.
This gives something of the flavour of Flynn’s story, the cheeky Australian, mentioning that he is son of a professor, wandering the world, drinking, the touch of womanising, plenty of brawls and fights (some of which would describe his subsequent life, especially leading up to his untimely death in 1959). Thomas Cocquerel makes for a handsome and active, a potential swashbuckler.
The main part of this film is action and adventure, Flynn and his friend Rex (Corey Large), a bare knuckle fighter, going to an opium den, being drugged, but Flynn stealing the sailing boat from these Chinese pirates in Sydney. Flynn and Rex are bound fool New Guinea again, seeking gold. They are joined by a friend who has the touch of the top, Duke, and Charlie, who originally owned the boat which was captured by the Chinese pirates.
They sail up the coast of New South Wales and Queensland, bond between themselves, find themselves in Townsville which is being run by an absolute rogue who has all kinds of business interests, setting up illegal knuckle fights, serving as religious Minister on Sundays (with David Wenham playing him all stops out).
So, more fistfights, Flynn meeting an old girlfriend, Rose (Isabel Lucas) who ultimately out-Flynn’s Flynn. They escape, make their way to New Guinea but don’t quite arrive there. Flynn’s alternative? To remember the offer from the Hollywood producer, try his luck, go to Los Angeles where we see him filming Captain Blood with Olivia Haviland (though he had appeared in five films and two shorts before this). Up on the screen comes a close-up of Blood and Olivia and the caption The End. The end of this film – but, the beginning for Errol Flynn who achieved instant success and popularity, top Hollywood presence during the 1930s and 1940s, declining in the 1950s to his death.
A pity that this film doesn’t show Errol Flynn’s performance for Charles Chauvel in the semi-documentary In The Wake of the Bounty where he plays, rather woodenly and giving no indication of future screen career and presence, Fletcher Christian. The screenplay is based on Flynn’s book Beam Ends – where, perhaps, he did not mention Chauvel’s film and his performance, preferring the Hollywood image.
JOHNNY ENGLISH STRIKES AGAIN
UK, 2018, 88 minutes, Colour.
Rowan Atkinson, Ben Miller, Emma Thompson, Jake Lacey, Edward Fox, Charles Dance, Michael Gambon, Pippa Bennett- Warner.
Directed by David Kerr.
Is Johnny English the alter ego of Mr Bean or vice versa? At times it is hard to distinguish between the two in their presumptions, ignorance, displays of miming, misadventures.
And, of course, they are all Blackadder himself, Rowan Atkinson. After three films for television playing George Simenon’s Inspector Maigret, Atkinson returns to comedy, taking up the character of the inept British secret agent, Johnny English from the two previous films, Johnny English and Johnny English Reborn.
Success through ineptitude might be a slogan to promote this film!
We are in the 21st-century world of cyber espionage with attacks on British communication, air travel, London traffic control. And the film opens with all the secret agents being exposed, faces names and dates all coming up on the screen. Is there anyone from the past who could step into the breach and thwart the cyber-attacks? Three old codgers are called in – a humorous sequence with Michael Gambon, Edward Fox, Charles Dance, reminiscing about their past, but not surviving long enough to go into action. Which leaves Johnny English who has been busy at a high school instructing the students in all the techniques of espionage, forming the future generation.
The British Prime Minister is desperate. She is played in a kind of angry schoolmarm headmistress mode by Emma Thompson, channelling some of Margaret Thatcher and her reliance on American know-how and, in a more contemporary vein, some of the bewilderment and misjudgments of Teresa May.
Johnny calls up his old friend Bough, Ben Miller, genially serving Johnny English but, in fact, infinitely more competent! They receive clues that the sabotage is coming from the south of France, so off they go after visiting the modern equivalent of James Bond’s Q where English rejects all the newfangled stuff and, to the surprise of the new Q who is very young, wants a gun which they don’t stock and chooses an old-style sports car.
There are lots of jokes at Johnny English’s expense, preening with his car but neglecting to get petrol, wanting to get past a group of cyclists and firing rockets at them, encountering the main spy from Russia, a glamorous Olga Kuryenko, and avoiding her attempts to shoot him by taking some pills and getting on the highest of high, and extended dancing routine on the disco floor.
In the meantime, the Prime Minister has sought the help of a young American IT expert, Jack Lacey, who is fairly quickly revealed as the archvillain though the Prime Minister has no clue and invites him to a G 12 meeting where ends of all the nations will sign away their security rights to the villain.
There is an amusing scene where English is introduced to virtual reality, his walking through the villain’s mansion but he steps off the platform in the laboratory and goes out into the street causing mayhem in real life while he succeeds in the virtual.
Discredited in the eyes of the Prime Minister, there is nothing left to do but for English and Bough (who turns out to be married to the commander of a nuclear submarine!) to go to Scotland to the G 12 meeting and confront the villain. Again, a number of amusing scenes and English succeeding despite increasing ineptitude. One supposes that that there is a message there that British, this time MI 7, can overcome all obstacles despite…
Not a film for guffawing with laughter but continuous smiles and quite a lot of giggles.
US, 2018, 93 minutes, Colour.
Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke, Chris O’ Dowd, Phil Davis,
Directed by Jesse Peretz.
This is a much nicer film than might have been anticipated. It is a romantic comedy but with a difference, not the least being that the central couple are in middle age. And, it is not always predictable. And, it is based on a novel by Nick Hornby, best known to filmgoers for versions of his High Fidelity, About a Boy, Fever Pitch. Whatever the difficulty that his central characters experience in those stories, there is always a niceness.
While there are some sequences in the US, the main action takes place in Britain, with filming around Ramsgate and Margate, attractive looks at seaside towns and the beaches.
The premise has more than a little of the ridiculous and plays this up enjoyably. Duncan and Annie have been living together for many years, mutually agree not to have children. She is the daughter of a historian in their seaside town and taking over the management of the museum he set up, continuing his legacy after he died. Duncan, on the other hand, is an enthusiastic teacher of literature at a local college.
But… he has an obsessive devotion, more than number one fan, records, posters, concert programs, memorabilia covering his walls, for an American singer who was popular in the 1990s but disappeared from sight, Tucker Crowe. Fortunately for Duncan, he can share with his fans on his website, a great deal of adulation going on. When Duncan is sent an original studio setting of one of the songs, Annie, not the least bit interested in the singer and getting more and more exasperated, posts an anonymous comment on the site. And who should respond to it, agreeing with its negativity, but the singer himself, Tucker Crowe!
Annie is played by Rose Byrne, Duncan by Chris O’ Dowd.
Because of all the posters and photos, the audience knows that Tucker Crowe is played by Ethan Hawke. Gradually, his background is filled in, the initial success, his band, a crisis concerning a daughter, his alcoholism, lost years, mixed relationships, but living on a property with his ex-wife with access to his young son (an engaging).
Tucker also has a daughter in London and he comes to London with his young son for the birth. Since the initial posting, Tucker and Andy have been involved in email correspondence, able to express their feelings online it than in reality.
Yes, Tucker does go down to the seaside town. Yes, Annie is intrigued by him and falls for him. Yes, Tucker who tends to be dishevelled and offhand, responds pleasantly even though he has a heart attack and is hospitalised. But, what about Duncan who has been beguiled by one of the teachers and abandoned Annie? How will he respond to the real Tucker Crowe? That is part of the enjoyment of the film.
In the meantime, with news in the US that Tucker has had a heart attack, the various members of his extended family turn up. And, in the town, Annie has curated an exhibition, Summer of 1964, with the insistence of the opportunist Mayor (Phil Davis). He even persuades Tucker to sing and play the piano.
No, it doesn’t work out exactly as we might have anticipated – but all the better for it and, indeed, is nicer.
LADIES IN BLACK
Australia, 2018, 103 minutes, Colour.
Julia Ormond, Rachel Taylor, Angourie Rice, Vincent Perez, Susie Porter, Nicholas Hammond, Ryan Corr, Shane Jacobson, Nonie Hazlehurst, Deborah Kennedy, Genevieve Lemon, Luke Pegler, Alison Mc Girr.
Directed by Bruce Beresford.
You would have to be something of a stone not to like, not to enjoy this film. It is an Australian story, a Sydney story, 1950s into the 1960s story – but, with a pleasing nostalgia, set in bright sunshine and light. (It is up to the audience to remember something of darker aspects of Australian life, social situations, aboriginal history – although this film emphasises the coming of the post-war refugees, the reffos, the migrants from Europe.)
The author of the novel, Madeline St John, studied at Sydney University with people like Clive James and Bruce Beresford. She moved to England where she wrote her novel, remembering and imagining her past. The director indicates that it took a long time to raise the money for this project – but, as we enjoy the finished product, the wait has been worthwhile.
For those who grew up in Sydney during the 1950s, there will be so many resonances, the use of actual Mark Foys facade, with a new notice “Goodes” superimposed, gives the story of those who work there and the shoppers a feel of authenticity. And, this reviewer identifies with students who had done the Leading Certificate hurrying at 11 PM to the offices of the Sydney Morning Herald to get their results.
The Ladies in Black of those women who serve at the counters of Goodes, under the watchful eye of the veterans played by Noni Hazlehurst and Nicholas Hammond. It is Christmas and there is a rush. The two regulars at the dress counter, Fay, Rachael Taylor, and Patty, Alison Mc Girr, are given some help by young Leslie (who finds this too much of a boy’s name and has asked to be called Lisa) who has just finished the Leaving, wants to be a poet or an actress, and engagingly makes mistakes but learns the routines of the store. She is played by Angourie Rice. And, supervising them, is Magda (Julia Ormond) as a Hungarian refugee of impeccable taste and manner.
We see a lot of life in the store – and in a period where the lady shoppers all wore hats and frocks. In fact, the film champions the women in their various walks of life but also their regrets, the homemakers who yearned for something more, the shop assistants who hoped for happy marriages, the young girls with ambitions. And, while the men are basically sympathetic, but there are some rather telling remarks about men and their foibles, their vanities, some sexual inhibitions, the beer-drinkers and TV race-watchers and some of the stereotypes of Australian husbands of the time.
The screenplay also incorporates a number of jokes about the Sydney- Melbourne rivalry – presented to Sydney’s advantage!
The film does focus on the four central stories, Lisa and her being befriended by Magda, sharing her love for Tolstoy with Fay, hoping for a Commonwealth scholarship to the University, introducing her sympathetic mother (Susie Porter) and her “I’m off to the pub for a couple of hours” father, (Shane Jacobson).
Fay on the other hand has had some bad experiences with men, finds many of the men groping her, is introduced by Magda to a Hungarian refugee, from the uprising in 1956, Rudi (Ryan Corr) who opens her horizons extensively. On the other hand, Patty’s husband, Frank, is rather awkward, from the country, somewhat inhibited as regards sex in marriage, but, with Patty’s support, finding a happy relationship.
When Magda is described as a reffo, Fay indicates “refugee, migrant”. Her husband, Stefan (Vincent Perez) is also from Hungary but they met in a migrants’ camp where they were learning English.
And so, a picture of the time which has its charm, its warmth – but, in its great attention to meticulous detail of the period, it is also a humorous film, many funny moments, but with a light air that (audiences except those who are stony) will enjoy.
McKELLEN: PLAYING THE PART
UK, 2017, 92 minutes, Colour and black and white.
Directed by Joe Stephenson.
Ian Mc Kellen had a life before Gandalf. He had a life before Magneto and the X- Men. In fact, he was praised in the late 1960s as being a great British Shakespearean actor.
This documentary is most interesting and entertaining. It is basically in Mc Kellen sitting in a chair, genially talking with his director, Joe Stephenson, taking him and the audience back to his childhood in Wigan, growing up, discovering his delight in theatre, auditioning for Cambridge with a Henry V speech, his studies and early performances. What makes it more interesting is that these episodes are re-enacted, dramatised, in black-and-white, incorporating documentary footage of the times, the 1940s and the 1950s. Mc Kellen was born in 1939.
His delight was in theatre. He performed with the stars at the old Vic under Laurence Olivier. He moved to smaller companies, was acclaimed for his performances in Henry II and Marlowe’s Edward II, getting praising reviews and consolidating his choice for life. Mc Kellen also liked going on tour, the response of the audiences around the British countryside.
One of the points that Ian Mc Kellen makes is that he is always playing the part – even in interviews, deciding which aspect of his persona he wants to communicate, to reveal or conceal, adapting to the interviewer and the situation. Yet, there is always his underlying self making itself known.
His career might have continued in the theatre had he not decided in the early 1990s to film his version of Richard III, set during the Third Reich. The film was successful, received good reviews and led Mc Kellen to making films, the example in this documentary is his portrayal of James Whale in Gods and Monsters.
Then came the franchises, his serious discussion about graphic novels and their adaptation, the serious themes in X- Men. He obviously delighted in playing Gandalf and there are scenes where he luxuriated in the beauty of the New Zealand countryside.
But, many of Mc Kellen’s fans will be wondering how he handles the issue of his sexual orientation in this documentary. He is quite frank. He lived a privately gay life until he was in his late 40s. At this time, the late 1980s, there was a move against homosexuality, this film quoting a clip of denunciation from Margaret Thatcher, the introduction of section 28 and its discrimination, the demonstrations against it. Mc Kellen outed himself in a television interview, discovering that his family and friends were well aware of this and it did not matter. He threw himself into campaigns, interviews, television debates. He remarks that it was if a huge weight was lifted off his shoulders.
In more recent times, he visits schools, discussing these issues with the students, discovering that he belongs to a very older generation and that students today are not always burdened with sorting out their orientation. However, one of the things that Mc Kellen is rueful about is that he has no family and therefore feels a responsibility to hand on something worthwhile to the coming generation. He also says that is preoccupied with death – though he has organised his funeral and memorial service, featuring a song from A Chorus Line, One Singular Sensation.
Australia, 2018, 94 minutes, Colour.
Damian Callinan, Kate Mulvaney, John Howard, Fayssal Bazzi, Rafferty Grierson, Josh Mc Conville, Nick Cody, Penny Cook, Angus Mc Laren, Sahil Saluja, Harry Tseng, Ben Knight..
Directed by Mark Grentell.
Beyond the city of Wagga Wagga, there is the town of Bodgy Creek, in decline, the mill having been closed by campaigns from greenies, the football club buildings to be demolished because of asbestos, the football club itself near collapse. And, not only that, a number of migrants are arriving in the town with some of the diehards of Bodgy Creek dead set against them and the threat of their taking jobs.
At one stage, when some of the migrants have been persuaded that they could play football, some of the locals are interested in where they come from and what their stories are. The new star, Sayeed, a Syrian, mentions that he comes from Aleppo – and one of his friends on the field, consults his phone app, tells him that Aleppo does not come up on Trip Advisor. This is one of the many good lines throughout the film that raise the social issues. And one of the bigoted townies proclaims that they ought learn English, and states that that’s all she aks.
Which means then that The Merger of the title is not just the merging of various football teams to make one which might succeed, but it is also The Australian current merger of asylum seekers and refugees finding a place in society.
In one sense, this film is preaching to the converted, those who want to welcome the newcomers to the land and help them find a place and a refuge. One is not too sure how those who share the opinions of the film’s diehards, those with a One Nationish type policies, would respond to the comic touches with which have political point.
The film is the work of Damien Callinan. It began as a theatre monologue with the actor speaking his lines. Now it has been amplified, taken outside, onto the football fields, throughout the town, homes and shops. While Damien Callinan does play the central role of the top greenie who led the campaign to close the mill, he also plays the former footballer who takes on the task of building up a new team and – we and they hope – to a premiership.
Central to the film is a young boy, a vigorous Rafferty Grierson, whose father has been killed in a motorbike accident. He is making his own documentary film, focusing on Damien with a touch of hero-worship and searching for a father-figure, along with his strong-minded mother, Kate Mulvaney. The dead father’s own father, literally nicknamed Bull, and played with force by John Howard, leads the reactionary group in the town.
We are introduced to quite a number of migrants, many with qualifications in their home country, trying to find jobs in the new country, trying to settle in, make friends – not always easy.
They are persuaded to play football and, gradually, they all combine with the locals to form a team – as well as contribute to business development in the town.
People mention such Australian comedies as The Castle and The Dish in connection with The Merger. In the same vein, the touch of spoof and satire, some engaging dialogue with Australian accent and tones, and an appeal, in football and political terms, for fair play.
US, 2018, 111 minutes, Colour.
Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish, Taran Killam, Keith David, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Ben Schwartz, Anne Winters, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Rob Riggle, Romany Malco, Jakob Batalon, Fat Joe, Al Madrigal.
Directed by Malcolm Lee.
In recent years, Kevin Hart’s star has been in quite an ascendant. He makes several films a year and has his own company Hartbeat. At times Hart can be entertaining. At times Hart can be quite irritating. And, at many times, he can be both.
This is the case with Night School.
Once again, he plays a little (literally) man, Teddy (Theodore), a hustler, cheeky, presumptuous, flexible with the truth, but able to be a plausible salesman along with his good friend Marv (comedian Ben Schwartz). But, in a flashback, we see that he was hopeless at school, dropping out, clashing with the tall white student, Stewart (Saturday Night Live comedian Taran Killam), continually being criticised at home by his demanding father (Keith David). But, that was back at the turn-of-the-century.
But, present day, Teddy is in love with a high-powered executive, Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke), is offered the chance of promotion if only he could get his high school qualifications. With his patter, he thinks they can put it over the authorities and get the certificate without any work.
But, this description of the film omits the powerhouse presence of Tiffany Haddish, sparring with Teddy as they stop at red lights, only for him to discover that she is the night school teacher – and, worse, that Stewart is the principal of the school.
In many ways, what happens is predictable enough but also entertaining enough as a group of eccentric characters form part of the class, a Hispanic waiter that Teddy had caused to be fired and who wants to be a singer, an outspoken Muslim character, the put upon housewife and mother, a young girl with a dropout mentality, and unimaginative 50 year old who wants to move up from driving to something executive – and a prisoner in prison who studies via Skype.
When she comes into the film, Tiffany Haddish certainly dominates everything and everyone, including Teddy, challenging him at every moment, diagnosing his disabilities, literally using martial arts to force him to focus, trying to teach and deal with the group, even when they break into the principal’s office and steal the mid-term test questions.
For those who liked Tiffany Haddish in her forceful performance in Girls Night, there may be some disappointment insofar as that film was exceedingly raunchy, many moments of crass. Night School is not particularly raunchy at all (it does have, as the Office of Classification indicates, some sexual references/crude humour), but in terms of coarse language, it is generally absent, giving the audience a bit of a rest.
In fact, ultimately, this is a highly moralising film, the value of night school, older people reassessing their lives, regretting the waste of time in the past, ambitious for better things and better relationships, culminating in graduation, speeches, reconciliation all round, including the principal apologising, but Teddy getting in some public pokes in the eye, pokes in the conscience of his authoritarian father.
Night School will appeal to a more general audience than many of the African-American? comedyies – but, it could well find its place in the curriculum for the motivation and rehabilitation of juvenile offenders.
US, 2018, 107 minutes, Colour.
Boyd Holbrook, Trivedi Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Keegan- Michael Key, Olivia Munn, Sterling K.Brown, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen, Augusto Aguilera, Jake Busey, Yvonne Satrhovski.
Directed by Shane Black.
There is a more than centuries-old tradition of novels, then films, about human conflict with aliens. Stories of War of the Worlds have been continually popular, small-budget supporting features in the 1950s, moving to the 1970s with bigger budgets and prestige, Close Encounters. The aggressive aliens received something of a boost in 1985 is The Predator, which had its own sequel as well as an exploitative spin-off with Jason versus Predator. Here is a 21st-century version.
The film was written and directed by Shane Black, an expert in writing tongue in cheek crime adventures, police adventures, like Lethal Weapon. There is also tongue-in-cheek humour in the dialogue in this film but, in some ways, the treatment of the aliens in the invasion is somewhat heavy-handed.
It starts with American military staking out cartel deals in the forests only for it to be interrupted by the arrival of an alien spaceship, the deaths of the military except for McKenna? (Boyd Holbrook) who survives, most unwisely sending some of the armour of the alien to his young son, Rory, who has Aspergers. McKenna? is then rounded up and interrogated by the military chiefs and some stern authorities probing the aliens, led by Sterling K.Brown, and an expert, Casey (Olivia Munn) who is called in as an adviser.
So, this is a basis for an action thriller, the alien coming in wreaking destruction in the investigation facility, Rory being tracked by the alien to recover the equipment, threats to his mother, McKenna? coming to his son’s aid along with a band of fellow-soldiers who would not be out of place in The Dirty Dozen.
Casey goes along with the group, the official pursues them, it turns out that there are two aliens but you would need to see the film to work out who was the good one and who is the bad one and why.
Ultimately, buildup to huge action, the dirty half-dozen going into action, and prepared to give their lives for the sake of the boy.
Some praise for the young actor, Jacob Tremblay, who gave a fine performance with Oscar-winner Brie Larson in The Room and continued to show his talent as the boy with the disfigured face in Wonder. He certainly holds his own with all the action in this film.
The American authorities receive a casket, opening it, something alien but possibly friendly, possibly not – at least the premise for a sequel.
A SIMPLE FAVOR
US, 2018, 117 minutes, Colour.
Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Dustin Milligan, Andrew Rannels, Ian Ho, Joshua Satine.
Directed by Paul Feig.
What could be more simple than one mother asking another mother to help her out by picking the children up after school? Needless to say, this film shows a range of complications that nobody could have quite anticipated. And, of course, that is part of the enjoyment.
Women come out quite well from this story – even a strong female villain. The men are also-rans…
One thought that arises is that this is the kind of story that could have been made in the Golden Years of Hollywood (though the language would have been extensively cleaned up). Anna Kendrick has shown herself quite a talent in serious roles but also very good in comic timing. She is a kind of 21st-century Nancy Drew, popular in those past Hollywood years. Blake Lively is a rather statuesque blonde with a commanding presence, the epitome of self-confidence and glamour. As it turns out, it is the kind of role that might have appealed to Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck.
But, a 21st-century audience may not be thinking of these things and just go along with the way this interaction between the two women develops.
Yes, they are mothers and there are the questions of picking up the two little boys, great friends, from school as well as Stephanie (Anna Kendrick), single-mother (though, as with the whole screenplay, there are hidden secrets that do surprise) ultra-busy about doing things for the school, helping everyone out (to the sarcastic responses of so many of the other parents), even with her own Vlog (video-blog for those unfamiliar) for mothers where she cooks her specialities for viewers or does some handiwork.
Emily (Blake Lively) is a businesswoman, in PR, the epitome of glamour, rather hard in her demeanour yet befriending Stephanie. She has a trophy husband, Sean, an author who has only one novel, years ago, to his name. He is played by Henry Golding at the same time as he starred as a Crazy Rich Asian.
For those who have seen the trailer and the advertising, it is clear that Emily disappears leaving Stephanie with the children, falling in love with Sean, being interrogated by the police.
Actually, what has happened is exceedingly complex, audience curiosity on the increase, some developments that might have been guessed other developments beyond guessing.
Stephanie learns a lot about herself in the situation, acknowledging her past, discovering that she could fall in love, always devoted to the children, but determined to find out what actually happened, becoming an effective amateur sleuth.
In fact, with her Vlog, she is able to address all the mothers, speaking to camera (which she has effectively used in her sleuthing) to explain to the mothers that she will carry on with the cooking and her favourite recipes, carry on with her handiwork, but is available to do detective work for solving mysteries.
US, 2018, 96 minutes, Colour.
Voices of: Channing Tatum, James Corden, Zendaya, Common, Le Bron James, Danny De Vito, Gina Rodriguez, Yara Shaidi.
Directed by Carrie Kirkpatrick and Jason Reisig.
Of course, Smallfoot is the opposite of Bigfoot.
There has long been belief in the Abominable Snowman, a Yeti, who lives in the snow and ice of the Himalayas. This is one of his stories! An animation film for younger audiences.
This is an entertaining animation film but with several points of view, especially an allegory of human prejudices, racism and bigotry, the need for mutual understanding and reconciliation.
The early part of the film shows life in the community of the Abominable Snowman – an enjoyable pastiche of paralleling this with familiar human society and interactions. However, there is a certain “primitive” set of beliefs amongst the people. Interestingly, and should we suggest, critically, promulgated by the religious leader of the Yeti, the Stonekeeper (Common), a sacred person, entrusted with stones with commandments on them, holding the people under his control and the teaching of the stones, standing above the people with a look of Moses.
It should be said that the perspective of the filmmakers on the Stonekeeper is extremely critical, visuals of drawings of sacred myths about the creation of the people, the world resting on two giant creatures, which are ridiculed. The stones with their messages carved on them are not to be questioned but, eventually, they, and found to be false, a means of population control. They need to be exposed – and are. (Some of the visuals and thematics relate to the Hebrew tradition, the behaviour of the strict community more like that of a fundamentalist American society.)
The hero of the film is a bit of a dope, and engaging dope (voiced by Channing Tatum), Migo. His father is the Gongringer (catapulted headfirst towards the gong) who signals the shiny snail rising in the east like the sun. Migo is to take over. However, he ventures down through the clouds, something forbidden, and encounters an American television group filming a nature series, led by British Percy (James Corden) who has had theories about the yeti and then encounters Migo, afraid, his voice to shrill to be understood while Migo’s is too loud to make communication. Nevertheless, they begin to communicate and Percy is introduced to a group of rebels who believe in human existence, proving to the group, including the Stonekeeper’s daughter, Meechee (Zenaya).
They try to persuade the Stonekeeper but he reveals art carvings indicating past battles between humans and Yeti. He also dominates Migo, persuading him to lie about what he has seen.
The film certainly picks up pace with the encounter between Migo and Percy and with Percy being taken up the mountain, the reactions of the people, the reactions of the Stonekeeper, Migo being exiled but returning triumphant.
The Stonekeeper’s daughter persuades her father to listen and, finally, the humans are confronted by the Yeti, but, of course, are able to be reconciled. Peace and love all round – and Percy getting a solid television contract!
THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS
US, 2018, 96 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Tim Wardle.
Clearly a title meant to intrigue – and it certainly does.
At first, this seems a very cheerful show, an interview with a middle-aged man telling the story of his going to college, everybody greeting him familiarly, his being puzzled, and then discovering that he resembled a young man who had been at the college the year before. He gets in contact and finds that they are identical in appearance and manner.
The two men were 19 at the time of their discovering each other, so all was very exciting, the media was fascinated, journalists were interviewing, articles in the papers and magazines – which then lead to another family looking at the photos and realising that the son in their house also resembled the two and that they all shared the same birthdate and had been adopted out by the same American Jewish adoption service.
So, the audience is carried along with all this cheerfulness, the young men bonding instantly with each other, enjoying the publicity, and all the TV shows, living the high life in New York.
The parents, however, were not pleased that they had not been informed that their adopted child had two siblings, that there were triplets. The mood of the film begins to change, becoming more emotionally demanding as well as puzzling.
Meanwhile, the three young men open up a restaurant, working together. Date, get married, the beginnings of their own families. The different parents also seem to get on pretty well with one another and the audience gets to know them and their backgrounds as well.
And then the mood begins to change further, working like an investigative story, probing the adoption agency and its methods, the secrecy, the choices of the particular families and their backgrounds, and some follow-up to see how the children developed within their families, a project, officers visiting and filming, asking questions, everything being filed.
There is a tragic aspect of the film which also jolt the emotions, issues of health, mental health, questions of heredity. And, there are appearances from a set of identical twins who had been adopted out and then discovered each other, who are also interviewed on television, fascinated by the similarities in their separate lives.
At the beginning, two of the triplets interviewed are in their 50s, looking back with some exhilaration, some regrets, some angers as they try to investigate what actually happened to them, the agency’s choice of their parents and differing family backgrounds, and each of them having an adopted sister two years older.
This documentary is well paced, draws its audience in with its various emotions and moods, some very human experiences but also raising a great number of scientific questions, even more ethical questions, and the ever-continuing debate about nature versus nurture.
YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE
UK/US, 2017, 89 minutes, Colour.
Joaquin Phoenix, Judith Roberts, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alessandro Nivola.
Directed by Lynne Ramsay.
If not really here, really where?
This is quite an enigmatic title. And, enigma pervades the whole film. The central character who dominates the film is enigmatic. The situations in which he operates a certainly enigmatic. The snatches of dialogue, sometimes mumbled, sometimes indistinct voices in the background are also enigmatic.
Intriguingly, there is quite a range of popular songs, snippets of songs throughout the film ranging from The Air I Breathe, I’ve Never Been to Me and If I knew you were coming, I’d have baked a cake!
One of the consequences of all these enigmas is that the audiences could be involved out of curiosity if not emotional involvement. In fact, as we observe the mysterious, often unexplained, activities of the characters, it is as if we become detached observers. And there are enigmatic flashbacks to compound the curiosity and/or the detachment.
The visual style is also enigmatic, a blend of realism with stylised photography, darkness and light, angles, editing.
The central character is played by a rather hefty, bearded and ponytailed, middle-aged, worse-for-wear, Joaquin Phoenix. His name is Joe. We quite don’t know what is happening to him at the beginning but we just accept him, glimpses of memories, glimpses of characters, a drug deal, his having a short fuse, his returning home, some banter with his mother, especially with the musical theme of Psycho.
It emerges that he is a hitman. He also searches for young girls. But, his contacts and interviews, his targets also remain fairly enigmatic. There is a young girl, several. A political theme enters with a campaign to re-elect the governor, Joe following him in his car to his mansion, discovering a brutal massacre.
Which raises the question for the audience as to that aspect of the title: where is “here”? Is it in a story of straightforward realism? With flashbacks? Is it in the memory of Joe? Is it in his mind and imagination? Is it in his conscience? Is he going through some kind of purgative experience – with a joltingly dramatic final scene at a diner with the young girl and a moment of violence which can shock the audience, but then is reversed. And the characters are no longer to be seen, no longer “here”. And, while we saw them on the screen, where were they really?
The film was written and directed by Scottish, Lynne Ramsay, who has made some short films but in a period of more than 20 years, this is her fourth feature film (the others being rat catcher, More than Colour, We Need to Talk about Kevin). She won the award for Best Screenplay at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. Joaquin Phoenix won Best Actor.
WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?
US, 2018, 97 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Morgan Neville.
A genial question for a title. This is the story of Fred Rogers, a Pittsburgh man, intending to be a Minister for the Presbyterian Church, fascinated by television, establishing a children’s program which ran for decades, becoming a Minister, being a significant person in the lives of many children as well as adults.
This is a review – and it is followed by a reflection, a disturbing reflection about our attitudes towards people today, especially suspicions and wariness.
As a film, this is very engaging. Fred Rogers is dead but he lives on in so many images from his program as well as interviews from his life throughout the decades. His show was very simple. No elaborate sets. He voiced various characters, especially a small puppet called Daniel became something of his alter ego throughout the programs. He was assisted at various times by producers and set assistants who are very strong in their memories and praise of him.
He was very much an entertainer of his times, especially in the decade of Civil Rights and Vietnam, courageous enough to raise serious issues for his audience, the nature of war, the reality of mothers and fathers falling out of love and separating. He was also an advocate of Civil Rights and the place of African-Americans?, incorporating a singer, François Clemmons, into his stories – symbolised by a sequence where it is a hot day and he has his feet in a tub of water, hosing them and he invites the African-American? policeman to join him to cool his feet, no segregation even in cooling off on hot day. (The actor-singer was a gay man, something Fred Rogers did not realise but retained the friendship and supported him even advising him not to make this public at the time.)
There are some very heartwarming sequences in the film, his ease in mixing with the smallest of children, making them welcome, a boy confined to a wheelchair enjoying singing with him (and later, as an adult, coming on stage and a tribute).
The various commentators, including his wife and son, speculate on the childlike simplicity of Fred Rogers’ attitude towards people and life, his recognition of goodness, and his statement of being true to the best in ourselves.
And the reflection?
In recent decades, with the revelations of abusive behaviour of adults towards children, of grooming, many of us are automatically on the alert, suspicious of adults and the behaviour towards children. In fact, at some stages, this happened to Fred Rogers. Critics, journalists, singled out his philosophy of being happy with whom one really is and stating that this led to a spoilt generation adults who are self-satisfied, unwilling to do anything for others. And then, there were some sexual implications, rumour-mongering that he was a gay man and casting aspersions on his role as a television personality for children.
This is the world we have come to live in, revelations of the abuse of children, authorities wanting to do their best to safeguard children – which has led to almost a guilty until proven innocent attitude towards those who do good in society (a consequence of disillusionment with so many abusive clergy of the different denominations and different religions).
This is a reality, but it is a pity. This documentary, with its warmth and charm, shows Fred Rogers was a good man.