SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS: SEPTEMBER/2
CLIENT 9: THE RISE AND FALL OF ELLIOT SPITZER
FINAL DESTINATION 5
FIRE IN BABYLON
JOHNNY ENGLISH REBORN
(Japan, 2010, d. Takei Miiche)
The title tells all in terms of plot and content. At the end of the Shogunate in mid-19th century Japan, the Shogun has promoted an upstart who is both shallow and callow, with little regard for people, who lives for excitement and power. Authorities dread his coming into power at the death of the Shogun and they call on a veteran Samurai to eliminate the despot.
After establishing the situation, the film focuses on Shinza, the Samurai leader, his negotiations with the followers of the upstart and their failure, then moves to his quest to find other Samurai who will train, perfect their martial skills and go on a quest which may well lead to their deaths as well. The film then moves on to the journey-quest, the hardships, especially in the mountains, and the bouts of opposition the warriors meet. They rescue a peasant hunter in the mountains. He joins them though he is offhandedly critical of their code.
The audience is in sympathy with the Samurai because several sequences of the upstart’s callous behaviour, rape and murder without a second thought or a moment’s compunction, have been seen.
However, the latter part of the film devotes over 30 minutes to the final confrontation. The Samurai ingeniously fortify an abandoned village, filling it with traps for the enemy and escape routes for themselves. The up close and personal detail of the fighting is effective except that it goes on for so long (and we really have not learned much about each of the assassins or identified all of them) that the attention begins to wander. Too much of a bloodthirsty thing.
The film is expertly made with great attention to period detail. What it lacks in character delineation, it makes up for in taking the audience back into this period of Japanese history and a different culture which brought about the end of the Shogunate and opened up Japan to its modern era.
(US, 2011, d. John Singleton)
How far is far-fetched? Pretty far in this case – and a little beyond. After all, two high schoolers taking on the CIA with its top surveillance techniques as well as a European assassin organisation (whose surveillance technology seems to rival that of the CIA – except when they are caught at the end and easily shot down) is not easily credible unless it is in an episode of Spy Kids.
After Taylor Lautner’s success as the werewolf in the Twilight series, his fans obviously want to see him in other movies. So, this is a Taylor Lautner star vehicle, aimed directly at the teenage fans. Lily Collins is along for the chase and flight for the male fans. The trouble with the film (amongst many) is that the dialogue is aimed too squarely at the target audience and comes across as banal and sometimes corny with a lot of extra explanation for this who missed it the first time. It illustrates the need for a re-write or testing out the dialogue with an audience. The preview audience began to titter, then to laugh, then to guffaw, with an ironic applause at the end.
Had the film just stuck to the far-fetched plot and the chase with minimum dialogue, it would have been more effective. As it is, several top actors appear in supporting roles and some don’t have such good dialogue either. The opening of the film is stronger, with Maria Bello and Jason Isaacs as Taylor’s parents and Sigourney Weaver as his therapist. After Taylor starts a school project with Lily and they look at sites for missing children, mayhem soon overtakes him. Alfred Molina is the CIA investigator and Michael Nyqvist (the central character in Stig Larsson’s Milennium films) turns up as the nasty killer from Serbia. This cast highlights the limitations of the performances of the young couple.
Come to think of it, the film is called Abduction, but it is not really about an abduction at all. Taylor’s fate was no abduction.
The teenage audience might enjoy it. Adults will be more hesitant – or, perhaps, not. I fear the committee for the Razzie awards 2011 will be putting it on their shortlist.
(US, 2011, d. David Dobkin)
With the advertising tagline, ‘From the director of The Wedding Crashers and the writers of The Hangover’, one would think that more than enough consumer information was offered for discerning filmgoers. The tagline is not false advertising.
For a while, over several decades, there was a series of comedies where two characters took each other’s personality while still looking their original selves. These tended to be father-son changes (Like Father, Like Son or Vice Versa) or mother-daughter changes (Freaky Friday). This time it is two middle aged men. One is a very successful married lawyer with children (Jason Bateman doing his now familiar thing as the put-upon businessman) and the other is an irresponsible womanising loser (Ryan Reynolds doing what he used to do in crass comedies like Waiting, Buying the Cow or Van Wilder, Party Liaison).
We know where we stand (or where we sit). There are lots of situations which we might have thought up had we been asked to write a screenplay. The loser has to become responsible (not very good at it at all, goofing in the office and cavalier with feeding crying babies during the night...). Ryan Reynolds is a good enough actor to be able to do both incarnations of his character. Not so sure about Jason Bateman being let loose (and he is tempted to become quite loose at times). Even acting irresponsibly, he is not quite credible or persuasive.
There are some funny sequences as you might imagine (and Alan Arkin turns up as the loser’s father). I am indebted to reviewer Tom Ryan of The Sunday Age for providing me with an adjective for this review and for future use. There certainly are some crass moments and jokes, but a lot of it is more basic, bodily functions and pooping babies etc. The word for this kind of humour and treatment is ‘tacky’.
It’s an American comedy of middle age and, as usual, with Judd Apatow comedies and the like, there is traditional moralising at the end. (And Jason Bateman’s wife is actually played by Leslie Mann who is the real Mrs Apatow.)
CLIENT #9: THE RISE AND FALL OF ELLIOT SPITZER
(US, 2011. d. Alex Gibney)
Elliot Spitzer may not be a name on most people’s lips. But, there was a time, for a decade, 1999-2009, when it was on the lips of many Americans and, probably, most New Yorkers. He was the crusading Attorney General who took on Wall Street (the ‘sheriff of Wall Street’, the ‘Crusader of Main Street’), the financial companies like Merril Lynch and some high profile financial fraud managers. And, this was before the global financial meltdown.
Director, Alex GIbney, has a solid list of documentaries, including Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room and the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Darkside, on US torture in Afghanistan and Iraq.
For audiences wanting to go back to the first decade of the 21st century and explore what happened in banking and finance and why the collapse would find this film and the 2010 Oscar-winning documentary, Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job , absorbing companion pieces.
The crusading was the rise of Spitzer which culminated in his being elected governor of the state of New York with a huge majority. But, the glory did not last long. On the private level, this married man with children, began to meet with prostitutes, part of a large up-market and expensive ring of escorts and was exposed. He resigned, much to the glee of many of his targets.
The narrative traces the events chronologically, but the film has a continuous interview with Spitzer himself who can be disarmingly candid at times, who explains his legal campaigns against the fraudsters and the manipulators, who admits his private failures.
Other interviewees are financial commentators of the time as well as financiers themselves. Three of the main interviewees are two of his targets, Hank Greenberg and Kenneth Langone,whom Spitzer pursued relentlessly – and who appear on screen at the end, delighted at Spitzer’s fall from grace (and power), and Republican State Senator, Joseph Bruno, who clashed with him when Spitzer was governor.
Two of the escorts ‘appear’ in the film. One, Ashley Dupre (‘Kristin’) became a media celebrity for a while. The other, ‘Angelina’, is not seen but her words are spoken by an actress.
Audiences who despise hypocritical behaviour in public figures will still despise Spitzer. Those who think that transgressing sexual morality does not deserve such a resignation (thinking Bill Clinton) and that the exploitation of government and financial management is more morally reprehensible will be confirmed in their crusading against such exploitation.
(France, 2011, d. Olivier Megaton)
La femme Cataleya.
Director-writer, Luc Besson, made two films about assassins in the 1990s, La Femme Nikita (remade in the US as The Assassin) and Leon (sub-titled The Professional). These films were thrillers but had some strong characterisation even as they looked at the bleak and isolated world of the assassin. While Colombiana is in this vein, it is more of a surface thriller than exploring the deeper themes that it introduces.
Zoe Saldana, after her turn as the lead in Avatar, is a ruthless assassin who takes on contracts from her uncle (Cliff Curtis), more than twenty killings of high profile gangsters and criminals. She leaves a signature message, the Colombian orchid, the cataleya. But, the message is not for the authorities. It is for the drug lord who killed her mother and father. The audience has seen this at the opening of the film and have seen the effect on the seemingly impassive Cataleya who skilfully escapes her pursuers at the age of nine, going to the US embassy with information from her father, but escaping on arrival in the US and hiding away with her uncle who trains her to kill.
The central part of the film is the visualising of two assassinations which she performs more than adeptly. Because the film relies on swift-paced action, we do not see any of her preparation for her work, just the expert fulfilling of her mission. In the meantime, an FBI officer has been pursuing the case, assuming that the assassin is male.
Eventually, Cataleya (with some deadly threats) discovers where the drug boss has been hiding and sets out to rid the world of him and his sinister assistant (Jordi Molla).
Careful to preserve her anonymity, she shuns all personal revealing of herself but does fall in love with an artist (Michael Vartan) who is the unwitting cause of her being tracked down.
You get exactly what you expected: a grim story of violence and revenge, filmed and edited with pace – and the possibility, if you are interested, to think more deeply about justice, revenge and passionate human nature.
THE EYE OF THE STORM
(Australia, 2011, d. Fred Schepisi)
Adapting a Patrick White novel for the screen. A tall order. Judy Morris has undertaken it and readers of White’s novels will argue about its fidelity to the book (some forgetting that it is an adaptation by the screenwriter and an interpretation by the director, not the book itself) or whether it moves away from the book. Others of us will have to comment on the film itself.
It is fair to say, and Patrick White might be pleased to hear, that this is an ‘art house cinema drama’. It does not make concessions to a multiplex audience who may find it sometimes precious and, perhaps, mostly tedious. But, it is a rewarding film with a complexity of plot and characterisation, expressed in White’s literary as well as vernacular language. And, then, there are White’s themes of what it is to be Australian, Australians in Europe, the cultural cringe to Europe, the not always admitted class distinctions in Australian society and White’s seemingly inherent snobbery as well as his frequent anti-snobbery stances. Challenging food for thought for the local audience. A great number of questions about Australian society for overseas audiences.
This is a film about death.
The opening shot, overhead, of Charlotte Rampling luxuriating in the surf, gulls flying, sun shining, moments of peace after the gale winds and the rain, her happiness in the eye of the storm is suggested as a sublime moment for her by the voiceover from her actor son, Basil (Sir Basil Hunter, played by Geoffrey Rush). And the film returns to these moments at the end. In the meantime, the audience has come to know Elizabeth Hunter, the mother, quite well, seeing her through her own memory flashbacks, both earthy and ethereal, the (often jaundiced) perspective of her dilettante son and Dorothy, her surface-pretentious daughter, the Princess de Lascabenes (Judy Davis). Son and daughter have returned as their mother is ailing – they are always in need of money and their memories of their mother and her influence on them are a mixture of resentment and the need to escape.
Charlotte Rampling gives a performance that commands admiration, most of her scenes as the aged, sick woman (the make-up artist has done a convincing job), but some as her younger, glamorously wilful and assertive self. Geoffrey Rush has no trouble in presenting a West End ‘luvvy’ theatre personality, partly slumming it in Sydney (and hoeing into food wherever he sees it and a presumptuously roving predator eye for women). Judy Davis has always been able to embody twitchy personalities and she does Dorothy and her twitches expertly.
And that is not all. The supporting cast has a number of veteran Australian actors of screen and stage who have made their mark in the past. Fine to see Helen Morse as the German cook who is able to sing and dance 1930s Berlin cabaret songs. Also to see Robyn Nevin as the wife of Elizabeth Hunter’s devoted lawyer (played by John Gaden). Elizabeth Alexander plays the princess’s ageing friend. Alexandra Schepisi is good as the devoted nurse who comes to expect a lot from Sir Basil but is doomed to disillusion. And Colin Friels is the labour leader who expects to become PM in 1972 (though he is more Bob Hawke than Gough Whitlam). (Judy Davis and Colin Friels, longtime husband and wife, have some wonderful, acerbic scenes together.)
While most of the action takes place in the Hunter mansion or at restaurants, hotels and social parties, there is the contrast with the ordinary Australians, nurses, workers, country house managers, who are presented as common-sensed, especially compared with the sometimes idiotic wealthy, and salt of the earth workers with decent families.
So, while the social themes are to the fore, so are themes of illness, increasing senility and dementia, the elderly coming to a more peaceful understanding of their lives. And this in the context of mother-children relationships. The children show some of their worst sides. But, it seems that they are actually learning something with their mother’s illness and the prospects of her going into a home. It leads to a strange mutual dependence episode in the relationship between brother and sister. But, just in case we thought they had undergone a permanent change for the better, we realise that leopards and most humans do not change their spots.
Directed by Fred Schepisi with great attentiveness to White’s waspish attitudes and dialogue, with sensitivity to human foibles and their consequences, the film has been photographed by Ian Baker who has worked with Schepisi since the 1970s. The score was composed by Paul Grabowsky.
For many readers, the novels of Patrick White were more admired than enjoyed. With The Eye of the Storm there is much to admire and, within its two hours, there is much to enjoy (though you might not really want to have met the Hunter family in real life).
FINAL DESTINATION 5
(US, 2011, d. Steven Quale)
Yes, the formula is the same: someone has a premonition/dream where disaster strikes and friends die one after the other; after he wakes up, the real disaster strikes and, though they all survive this one, they are later picked off one by one in the freakiest of accidents. And should one survive out of order, it really doesn’t matter. Death has you on the list. A variant this time - if an expectant victim kills someone, they then get the time that their target would still have had they survived.
Preposterous? Of course, but with this kind of horror thriller, it doesn’t really matter, does it?
The eight potential victims are ciphers rather than characters, though they are given some details of a back story. They are played reasonably enough, soap opera style. Nicholas D’Agosto? is the sympathetic Sam who has the premonition.
It’s the special effects that are the main attraction. It can be said that the bridge destruction which opens the film is quite spectacular, even more than spectacular. The makers must have decided that it was so effective that they repeat quite a lot of it for the real collapse after the premonition. In a ghoulishly fatalistic way, the other deaths have their special effects and shock moments: a gymnast steps on a tack with awful consequence; a sleazy type’s massage goes awry as does a laser eye treatment.
There are a few dramatic variations with some murders, though the film ends with an ironic twist on gaining the extra time for life from a victim. As the film moves to its conclusion, we realise (if we are familiar with the series) that we are back in 2000 with the opening of the very first film.
A horror concoction, with macabre touches, in a series that has proved more durable than might have been thought a decade ago.
FIRE IN BABYLON
(UK, 2010, d. Stevan Riley)
Fire in Babylon? A historical documentary? War in Iran?
This is a very interesting as well as entertaining documentary about the dominance of the West Indies in world cricket for two decades from the 1970s to the 1990s. Even those who do not have the patience to watch a five day test match, let alone a one day match (or even a 20/20 match), will find much in the film to enjoy, and even be excited by. (Some British and Australian fans may also get excited in the glum sense as they see the West Indians returning the conquering compliment to Lillee and Thompson and the England bowlers.)
But, Stevan Riley’s documentary focuses on the independence movements in the Caribbean in the 1960s, and the desire for freedom from European colonial power, the power of Britain. He uses news footage from the period. He also links the movements and the ascendancy in cricket to the music of the period, reggae music with Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff and the Rastiferian background.
But, with so much cricket footage, rapidly paced and inserted, there is a growing sense of exhilaration as we see the defeated West Indian players decide to strike back against the fast pace bowling – and the many hits, bumps and bruises. And strike back the players did, scouting for and finding a new generation who developed bowling techniques that gave as good as it got. And the past dominating sides had to accept being beaten at their own game.
What enhances the film is the footage of talking heads, the cricketers from those times but also the strong contemporary interviews from Clive Lloyd, Viv Richards and many others who offer the benefit of their memories and their reflections after so many years. Colin Croft also appears, which raises the issues of rebel teams playing in South Africa in the 1980s and the consequences.
The running time is short, shorter than many an innings, but it is made by those who have an affinity with fast-paced bowling but don’t mind some tricky spin now and again.
(US, 2011, d. Craig Gillespie)
Back in 1985, Tom Holland wrote and directed a vampire film (not so prolific then as they are these days on the big screen and on the television screen) which some consider a classic of sorts, Fright Night. William Ragsdale was the schoolboy who discovered his next door neighbour, Jerry (Chris Sarandon) was a vampire. He enlisted the aid of an eccentric showman, played with relish by Roddy Mc Dowell. There was a sequel, less successful, a couple of years later.
Powers that be have decided that it is time for another version, and in 3D.
As vampires movies go, it is not bad (except for an excess of tiresome crass language which usually indicates quick and lazy writing). This time the setting is suburban Las Vegas, homes and schools, the desert roads, with a visit to a casino and one of those extravagant show theatres.
The question is: how seriously should it be taken? It is a B movie plot with an A cast.
This time Anton Yelchin is the boy. He is a good actor (Star Trek, The Beaver). His vampirised friend is played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse?. Of all people, Jerry is played by Colin Farrell (who also tried his hand at black comedy as one of the Horrible Bosses). Toni Collette is the boy’s mother and Imogen Poots his girlfriend, Amy.
The plot is much the same as before. Boy is alarmed at vampire next door, tries to protect his mother and Amy, sees what Jerry is up to and is hounded and pursued by Jerry. (And, stopped on the road, they are crashed into by Chris Sarandon with Colin Farrell doing to him what Sarandon did to others in the original: joke appreciated by horror buffs).
While Roddy Mc Dowell tended to steal the show in the past, how will this one do it: as well or better? In fact, they have hired TV’s recent Dr Who and the West End’s Hamlet, David Tennant, to send up the wilful, spiteful, egotistical and alcoholic Las Vegas magician who is an expert on vampires. He is made up to look like a gaunt Russell Brand (perhaps Brand was going to do the part but could not) and proceeds to channel Brand’s eccentric, in your face, style of comedy. He does it very well.
The plot is really a bit thin and familiar, so the interest and entertainment come from seeing this kind of cast, fangs and all.
(UK, 2010, d. Julie Moggan)
Guilty Pleasures. Sounds a bit prurient. And it is, but not in the sensual sense – at least not for the viewer. It’s about readers of Mills and Boon novels, who are reading the books for some sensual sense.
Seeing is believing. Here are the stories of three women, one British, one Indian, one Japanese, who are devoted (and I mean DEVOTED) to their Mills and Boon stories. There are interviews with the unlikeliest of Mills and Boon authors, Englishman Roger, whose nom de plume is Gill Sanderson, and a model who has appeared on hundreds of covers and has aspirations for a film career, Stephen Muzzonigro.
What was not expected though, perhaps, it should have been, was being immersed in such a feeling and sense world. As Gill Sanderson notes – he is an older middle-aged man who looks and sounds nothing like Barbara Cartland (though some of the ladies who come to his writing seminars do) – the books present ‘a nicer world than the real one’. He also refers to that ‘magnificently trite’ sentence: ‘I love you’.
There are three case studies.
Shirley is from the north of England. We see her in bed curled up with Mills and Boon, next to her husband, Phil, who likes true crime stories. Shirley is a nice middle aged lady who looks after Phil’s needs (we discover he suffers from depression). She seems a text book case with her loving attention to detail. Phil gets a lot of screen time and presents a striking contrast as an unrelenting macho type. He praises men’s occupations, like mechanics and fixing things, and opines that this is really how men should be. You really don’t want to know his opinion of his first wife and the demands he made on her – his young, presumptuous phase. But, Shirley has been good for him and we finally leave them buying each other Valentine’s Day cards and having a nice meal together.
Phil is really redeemable. Not so, Shumita’s husband in India, who walked out on her five years earlier and is shacked up with someone else. He is that kind of person, unpleasant and self-absorbed. He shouldn’t have allowed himself to be interviewed because he elicits instant dislike (or worse) and does not seem to be aware of it. He is into mechanics to as well as advising the director how to take photos. And, believe it or not, Shumita (heavier than she used to be) still wants him back and makes every effort, even buying large, primary coloured bras because... Well, you can guess. This is a hurt woman at her most devoted (and unwilling to do a bit of analysis on her ex-husband), stoked by her reliance on her Mills and Boon reading.
Hiroko from Japan loves the Mills and Boon dance stories and is a devotee of TV Dance shows. Her tolerant husband, who looks after the children, is happy that she spends most of her time at dance lessons and practice – and, with her instructor, she wins the inevitable competition. She is immersed in her SF fantasy – though, relievedly, she starts to come back to the real world after the victory.
If you want to hear the philosophy of the Mills and Boon machine, Roger has plenty to say as he meets readers, conducts his classes, sits in restaurants with his pen poised above his notebook to record stimulating conversational titbits that will become integral to his story.
And Stephen? As Emma Stone says to Ryan Gosling when he takes off his shirt in Crazy, Stupid, Love, ‘You must be photo-shopped’, so Stephen works out, poses on the beach, sails his boat, reflects on Yoga and Eastern hints for Eastern sexual prowess, and shows us several of his photo shoots for the book covers. While Roger prefers to live and be alone (perhaps compensating with his sometimes torrid romances), Stephen finds a partner who, for the moment, seems to be the real thing.
I have never read a Mills and Boon novel, but seen several movie versions. I was amused at the beginning of a Guardian review that I googled across: ‘As I watched George Osborne's slow strangle of the welfare state on Wednesday, I wondered – how many Mills & Boon novels will have been sold by the time he finally winds up? The answer is 1,240, because they sell a copy every three seconds, plus no doubt a few more when the chancellor is speaking.
Along with lipstick, Smarties and almost anything that fits in a handbag, romance fiction, the biggest sector in British paperback publishing, is depression proof. It is probably apocalypse proof too. And, to remind us why, Guilty Pleasures, a feature-length documentary about Mills & Boon, had its world premiere at the London film festival last night.’ (Tanya Gold, October 23rd 2010)
Guilty Pleasures is, of course, a guilty pleasure of a documentary. It is a portrait of pop culture through some case studies. The guilty non-pleasure is trying to remind oneself not to indulge in a colonial kind of looking down on Mills and Boon and readers who enjoy their time immersed in this world.
(Australia, 2011, d. Daniel Nettheim)
Screen Tasmania is not a title we see all that often in a film’s credits. But, here it is and Tasmania is definitely to the fore.
First of all, the scenery must be noted. The Tasmanian wilderness looks beautifully rugged and we are treated to a great deal of it. Secondly, the Tasmanian issue must be noted. The Tasmanian Tiger.
We have heard stories of the Tasmanian Tiger, the Tasmanian ‘Devil’, and its extinction. There have been rumours over the decades of sightings. The Hunter takes up the possibility of their not dying out. A multinational drug company is eager to find the animal to extract fluids which may have beneficial results for health but even more beneficial financial results. They hire hunters to go into the mountains to secretly track the animal. We learn that the company is quite ruthless in its ambitions.
Willem Dafoe is the hunter whose quest we share. Dafoe has been a strong screen presence for over a quarter of a century and communicates tough earnestness in this kind of role. His rugged face draws attention and his capacity for communicating an inner life are a great advantage since so much of the film concentrates on him and his roaming the mountains, searching lakes and caves, setting traps, confronting industrial spies and coming to terms with the moral issues which underlie his pursuing the tiger.
Frances O’Connor? is the wife of an environmentalist who has disappeared in the mountains. She offers hospitality to the hunter who also gets on well with her two children. Morgana Davies, who was so strong a presence in The Tree, proves she can hold her own with adult actors here. Sam Neill is a local who is commissioned to help the hunter but who has a much more ambiguous role in the community where loggers are put off work and where environmentalists celebrate nature and irk the workers.
The plot is not always as predictable as might have been first thought. The screenplay is based on a story by Julia Leigh (Sleeping Beauty), using the basic plot but developing and adding many strands to make the drama stronger.
Often lower-key than might be expected, it is an effective small film with strong characters and significant issues. Is extinction preferable to exploitation?
JOHNNY ENGLISH REBORN
(UK, 2011, d. Oliver Parker)
If you are a Rowan Atkinson fan, you will, of course, want to see this sequel to his 2003 Bond spoof, Johnny English. It is not Atkinson at his ironic best as in his early sketches for The Secret Policeman’s Ball or Blackadder. It is more a verbalised version of Mr Bean in an espionage context. While a lot of the verbal and visual jokes are the expected ones, Atkinson generally delivers them with his nonchalant panache.
The reborn in the title indicates that Johnny English is in espionage limbo – or, at least, doing training in martial arts and in mind control in Tibet. Some of the techniques he laboriously learns (amid many pratfalls) will come in handy at the climax with the foiling of an attempted assassination of the Chinese premier. The cause of Johnny’s downfall was a similar assassination in Mozambique, which we see in continuous flashbacks.
The film is lavish in sets, with filming in Hong Kong, including quite a chase on the harbour, as well as familiar Bond locations in the Alps and a castle-fortress in Switzerland.
The plot is fairly straightforward as regards MI7 and spying and English failing and succeeding at the same time.
There is an interesting cast, although Gillian Anderson is somewhat colourless as Pegasus (the Judi Dench equivalent). Dominic West smiles and snarls as required. Rosamund Pike is sweetness and light as the house psychologist for MI7. Daniel Akuulya is the young assistant agent who has to correct and rescue Johnny English (with little thanks until the end). They are a bit like a latterday Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
It is all quite undemanding Rowan Atkinson adventure comedy – but don’t walk out during the final credits. Atkinson does a wonderful meal preparation to Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King.
(US/UK, 2011, d. Lone Scherfig)
I was very surprised to find myself quite tearful at the end of this film and wondered why.
First of all, I was predisposed to like One Day as I had enjoyed the director’s films, Italian for Beginners and An Education. She seems to be able to combine serious themes with humour and emotion. Next, I admired the cast, the always attractive Anne Hathaway, Jim Sturgess who is showing greater versatility as the years pass. And the supporting cast was very good as well: Rafe Spall stood out as a would-be stand-up comic who has to come to terms with reality, Romola Garai as a humourless wife and mother, Patricia Clarkson as Sturgess’ mother (with an English accent) and Ken Stott as his gruff father.
But, I suppose it was mainly the plot and the interactions of the characters over twenty years or so. David Nichols, who adapted his novel for the screen, had the idea of taking one day each year, July 15th in fact, St Swithin’s Day, and tracing through glimpses, some very brief, some lengthier, how the two characters change.
The first day was in 1988 when Emma and Dexter graduated from university in Edinburgh. The encounter is brief and the two part (though there is a development of that day which becomes more explicit at the end of the film). Dexter goes to India for a year, later helps Emma move to London, re-visits her, has meals, goes with her to France for a holiday. He also becomes a TV personality on a late night variety and interview show which makes him more callow, relying on drink, drugs and women. Emma, in the meantime, has worked for some years in a Mexican restaurant but studies to be a teacher and proves good at this profession as well as writing a children’s book.
The film shows us what strong friendship can be, in good times, as well as in down times. Emma is a good confidant but does not take Dexter’s self-excusing lightly. Eventually, after Dexter marries and is divorced, he and Emma are able to come together more seriously than before.
The ending came as a great shock to me, quite upsetting. But, the film effectively takes us through the aftermath to a satisfying, even hopeful future.
(US, 2011, d. Shawn Levy)
Video games alive!
First of all, so many reviews are going to mention The Champ and Rocky, that I will mention them now as well. Plus Rollerball, Death Race and other futuristic sports films that emphasise smashing competitions and fanatical audiences.
This is meant to be a family film and a film about family. There is plenty of noise, plenty of crashing of real steel against real steal, but it is geared to a PG rating.
Hugh Jackman (one of the best actors to convey both charm, geniality and toughness even when he plays an unsympathetic character) is Charley, a wanderer who is reckless and certainly no planner with his life and his work. He goes from carnival to carnival or rodeo or venue for robotic boxing (yes, that is the subject of the film), sometimes winning, often losing, always in debt. He is no good at relationships either, not having seen his wife or son for a decade or more, fickle even with the daughter of a gym owner (Evangeline Lilly) who had been a father-figure to him. This we see in the early scenes.
With his wife’s death, what is he to do with his 11 year old son? Get some cash so that he can be happily cared for by his wife’s sister and her husband (Hope Davis and James Rebhorn). But, Max, the son, wants to go on the road with him, especially when he sees his dad’s new robot fighter, the gigantic Noisy Boy.
For a while, it all goes badly, with Max being more intelligent and practically sensible than his father. Fate intervenes, and Max discovers an old robot which he cleans, fixes, trains and we are firmly in The Champ territory as father and son bond, and in Rocky territory with the build up to a huge fight in a fashionable New York arena, with fashionable and wealthy crowds and media, where Atom takes on the champion, Zeus, and its arrogant inventor and owner. The screenplay mentions David and Goliath. The ending is only 90% predictable. But, it is smiles and tears galore.
Dakota Goya is the name of the young Canadian actor who plays Max. He has had a considerable career already (was the young Thor), but he stands out here, an extraordinarily confident and credible performance by an 11 year old.
Which seems to mean that, while boxing films are not a favourite and, on paper, I might not have liked Real Steel, I realised by the end that I had been caught up and did enjoy it, predictability, steel crunching and pounding and all.
(US, 2011, d. Kevin Smith)
Kevin Smith has proven to be something of a sign of contradiction, enthusing his fans and irritating his definitely-not-fans. I will opt for the fan side.
Smith used to portray himself in his films as a slacker, the famous Silent Bob. He has an offbeat sense of humour (uninhibited as well), belongs to the comics and graphic novels era (he turned 40 in 2010), is skilful in writing smart and sometimes tantalising dialogue, and doesn’t mind being rough and ready in his film-making, favouring some improvising.
This is all evident in Red State which defies easy pigeon-holing as to what genre the film is. It shifts genre from time to time which may prove disconcerting to the unwary and the unwilling, but when it is all put together (only 88 minutes), it comes out as a smart movie whether we liked it or not.
There is plenty to put us on guard. It takes on current American bigotry, especially of the conservative religious variety. Smith was a producer on a 2007 documentary on the Westboro Baptist Church which is crusadingly against the alleged decline of American morals, homosexuality being a principal target. There is an explicit reference in Red State to Westboro, claiming that the group in the movie are even more extreme. And that is what we see.
Had we not had American incidents like Waco, or memories of Jonestown, as well as Oklahoma bombers and Unibombers, we might be tempted to say that Red State is far-fetched. But...
The film does indicate in its opening minutes that these themes will be pursued but it then focuses on three high-schoolers who are sex-obsessed and use their I-Phones? to check out local prostitutes. Off they go and get more than they ever bargained for. You need to see it to appreciate what happens.
Red State then switches gear into a police investigation of a car crash the boys were involved in, as was the sheriff in behaviour that his wife would not approve of.
But, the film has also switched into a story about a religious church, a group of 25 members of a family and spouses, who put their religious convictions into deadly practice – literally. The result is a police siege – with ironic comment about the way American authorities have handled siege and terrorist situations: no witnesses.
The cast is strong and makes this watchable if not believable to non-Americans who have not experienced this kind of gun-toting religious certainty and intolerance. Michael Parks gives one of his best performances as the leader of the Church, seemingly sane, a smooth preacher (and he gets the chance for a long moralising sermon about the decline of the US) but absolutely convinced of his self-discovered messianic role. Melissa Leo is excellent, as always, as his fanatical daughter. John Goodman is the agent in charge of the siege.
Kevin Smith ‘did’ religion when he was in his twenties with Dogma, a provocative satire on the church, angels and images of God. This time, there is a social and political agenda behind his satire. Satirists are often perfectionists who are enraged by the failure of society that the only way they can make their point is by the combination of savagery and spoof. Kevin Smith has done this with Red State. (There is a lot of swearing in Smith’s films, as here – however, he does use one of those four-letter sentences that are too often lazily used instead of better writing to end the film, and most audiences will find it apt, especially as it is Smith’s only cameo in Red State.)
SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN
(China, 2011, d. Wayne Wang)
A fascinating visit to China, present and past. Readers of the book by Lisa See have commented that the film focuses on the past and that the film has created the story set in the present. This makes it a different interpretation of the book and highlights the comparisons between the 21st century and the early decades of the 19th century. This is particularly the case in the status and treatment of women. This is very much a woman’s film in focus, themes and performance.
Hong Kong born Wayne Wang has had a very varied career for over twenty five years. Some of his earlier films from the 1980s had Chinese themes (Dim Sum, Eat a Bowl of Tea) some of them in an American setting. After that, he made many films in the US, with very American themes (Smoke, Maid in Manhattan). However, in recent years he has shown a greater interest in Chinese stories.
One of Wang’s best-known film is The Joy Luck Club (1993), the story of four Chinese women, their past in China and their lives in America. Snow Flower can be seen as a companion piece. But, the story remains in China with only verbal references to the US and to Australia.
The film opens in the present in contemporary Shanghai. It should be said that the views of Shanghai throughout the film are very striking. We get a very good look, in close-up, of how Shanghai is a modern and developing city. We are introduced to Nina, a young woman about to open a New York office of her bank. But, she receives news that her close friend, Sophia, is in coma after a bicycle accident.
Flashbacks are introduced to show how the two girls met. Nina coaches the Korean born Sophia in Mandarin. So, we are offered two times as the film moves between the present and the past of the two women, especially the formalising of ‘laotong’, a lifelong contract of friendship between two women.
But, who is Snow Flower?
She is a young child in 1829 who suffers the cruel custom imposed on girl children, foot binding, so that they will have ‘perfect’ feet. She is from a poor background but her companion in the foot binding is a more wealthy girl, Lily. They bond as lifelong friends.
So, this introduces a third time for the narrative. Audiences may need to pay attention as the screenplay moves from period to period. Some may think it is confusing, but the film-makers want to dramatise the parallels between the lives of the women in a patriarchal past where their fate was to be wives and mothers (of boys), oppressed by their husbands, by the laws and customs of tradition, and a much freer life now for women and control of their destinies.
The parallels and contrasts are fascinating and a strong reminder that worlds change (and must). This is reinforced by two actresses playing the adult Snow Flower and Lily and also Nina and Sophia.
As the drama in each period unfolds, issues of love, self-sacrifice and discovery of the depths of affection, love and commitment are beautifully explored.
Bingbing Li is Nina/Lily who is single-minded for success but self-sacrificing (and controlling) for her friend. Gianna Jun is gentle and loving as Snow Flower and wilful as Sophia. Towards the end of the film, Hugh Jackman appears as Sophia’s lover.
This is a film to surrender to rather than to sit in (impatient) judgment. It offers many challenges about history and the present and the rights of women and issues of equality.
(UK, 2011, D. Richard Ayoade)
What is it like to be an introspectively smart young adolescent who is gawky on the outside, prone to being mocked and bullied? Especially, if you have nice but eccentric parents – and there is an introverted hormonal crisis that wants to extravert itself?
You might not get so many answers while watching Submarine, but you will get to know a youngster who takes things seriously and who experiences the teenage confusions.
Craig Roberts is certainly a find in the role of 15 year old Oliver (though the Internet Movie Database indicates that he has been on the big and small screens for some time). He is on screen most of the film, confiding in the audience, inviting us to share his feelings and puzzles. What complicates matters is that he is attracted to a girl in his class, Jordana (Yasmin Paige, also very effective). He is a good companion to her, especially when her mother has terminal cancer – and then he blows it. It seems he has lost his chance and Jordana takes up with another boy in the class.
But, Oliver is also concerned about his parents. His father is a sea-life academic, rather withdrawn, but has lost his job and works at home. Noah Taylor makes this seemingly unlikely character quite credible. Then there is Oliver’s mother (a different kind of role for Sally Hawkins) who tends to be prim and organised but who is attracted to an old flame (Paddy Considine) who turns up and plays with her affections. Oliver is determined to break up any possible relationship.
So, there we are in a coastal town in Wales, keeping the company of an earnest, searching young lad, experiencing his feelings, his desires and his mistakes, hoping that he will grow into a sensible man and that he will bring his parents together again.
It’s a small-budget film but very effective in its modest way.
(US, 2011, d. Errol Morris)
Another documentary from Errol Morris who explored police issues in The Thin Blue Line, Robert Mc Namara’s political advice in The Fog of War and torture in Abu Greb in S.O.P. (Standard Operating Procedure). This time his touch is light. He is exploring a tabloid story which reminds us that truth can be stranger than fiction. He has his tongue in his cheek with interviews and employs tabloid and pop TV visuals to illustrate his cheerfully preposterous story of former Miss Wyoming, Joyce Mc Kinney.
In the 1970s, Joyce Mc Kinney was obsessed with, says she was in love with, Mormon Kirk Anderson. He claimed he went to England to escape her. She rounded up a strong man, KJ, and hires a pilot, Jackson Shaw, to take her to London where she virtually abducts Kirk and is alleged to have used him as a sex slave. The London tabloids, principally the Daily Express, got hold of the story and had no qualms in exploiting it, with the Daily Mirror sending a photographer to the US to track down Joyce’s friends and associates and discovering a cache of sex photos (which Joyce claimed were doctored). However, the evidence seems to show that she was available and advertised for sex. There is some footage from Joyce when young, telling a fairy story and hoping it has a happy ending.
But, what makes the film so engrossing (and funny) is that it is principally an interview with Joyce thrirty years later, a buxom middle-aged woman, ebullient and not hesitating in being forthcoming about herself, explaining and justifying herself. But, can we believe her? She obviously believes herself but may have become so involved with the fictional side of what she did and what happened to her that much of her interview could be taken with a grain of salt.
Morris has some other interviews which contradict Joyce’s story at times. KJ died in 2004, so is not in the film. Kirk Anderson (who is seen in home movies and photos) refused to participate in the film. But, the pilot is there. The Daily Mirror photographer is there – probably giving a lot of the truth but showing himself as a real tabloid personality . A Mormon DJ is also interviewed offering info about Mormon customs which may surprise some viewers (especially about the Mormon undergarments). Finally, a British Daily Express journalist is interviewed who brings some ironic objectivity to the whole story.
Since all these interviews are intercut throughout the whole film, it makes for continually interesting shifts of points of view.
In recent years, Joyce contacted a cloning scientist in Korea (he is interviewed too) about her dying dog – with the result that she now has five cloned puppies!
A tabloid life!
(US, 2011, d. Frank Coraci)
Older grandparents accompanying their grandchildren will remember the Francis the Talking Mule movies of the 1950s. Younger grandparents may remember Doctor Doolittle’s song, ‘Talk to the Animals’. Parents will remember all kinds of talking animals on the large and small screen. Here’s another one.
The littlest children may find the animals funny but there is a lot of plot concerning the Zookeeper himself and his pining over his former girlfriend, Stephanie (Leslie Bibb) while he has to learn to be satisfied in being his real self which will seem to them to be just marking time until the next funny bit. It may appeal most to primary school goers. Parents could enjoy it, but it is fairly basic comedy.
Kevin James made his name with the TV series, The King of Queens, and then came to the screen in Hitch, Paul Blart Mall Manager and Grown Ups. He is large, acknowledges this, and is not exactly your screen heartthrob. He plays to this image, plenty of pratfalls, plenty of accidents and a fair amount of mayhem.
The animals have obviously seen the Madagascar films and see Zookeeper as a great opportunity to become stars. They talk – although the code does not allow them to let humans know they can speak. But, they are grateful to Griffin the Zookeeper for helping them, especially against hard-hearted co-workers and obnoxious visitors to the zoo. When they reveal themselves to Griffin, they each try to help him to woo Stephanie again and make him look like a hero. The results are disastrous as each animal gets him to be like them: lions advising getting prey by themselves, the wolf advising his canine techniques for marking out territory (demonstrated and Griffin following suit), bears offering macho hints.
Griffin’s main friend is the lonely gorilla, Bernie, and a highlight of their being buddies is Griffin taking Bernie to TGI Friday’s and a boisterous night on the town. Bernie is also instrumental in helping Griffin propose to Kate (Rosario Dawson) his co-worker.
And, there are some amusing out-takes during the final credits.
The bonus in seeing the film, the voice talent: Nick Nolte is a doleful Bernie; Adam Sandler is the comic monkey (and his wife, Jackie, appears as the waitress in TGI Fridays); Sylvester Stallone is a rather cowardly lion with Cher as his wife; Jon Favreau and Faison Love are the bears and Maya Rudolph is Mollie the Giraffe while director Judd Appatow is Barry the elephant.