SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS SEPTEMBER 2011-08-09
BIG MAMMA’S BOY
CONAN THE BARBARIAN
COWBOYS AND ALIENS
FACE TO FACE
FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS
HOBO WITH A GUN
POM WONDERFUL’S GREATEST STORY EVER SOLD
RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, The
TUCKER AND DALE Vs EVIL
(US, 2011, d. Daniel Barnz)
In theory, this should have been a surefire success for the popular market. It is a teenage interpretation of the age-old Beauty and the Beast fable. It stars Alex Pettyfer (I Am Number Four) as the beast, High School Musical’s Vanessa Hudgens as the beauty and Mary- Kate Olsen as a kind of witch character out of Charmed.
But, it is not a success. Far from it. (This reviewer was prepared to give it full focus during a flight but could not give it the 100% attention it did not deserve.)
The running time is brief. Kyle (Pettyfer) quickly emerges as a smug, mean-minded and dominating presence at school, campaigning for the presidency of a group, tough on his friends, spiteful with his tongue and imagining that he is envied by all. He insults a rival, Kendra (Olsen), who puts a spell on him, transforming his inner ugliness to his outer appearance which means that he has to withdraw and live alone, being educated by a blind tutor (Neil Patrick Harris) and a housekeeper to whom he has been particularly nasty (Lisa Gay Hamilton). They both seem remarkably tolerant. His often-absent father supports him.
He rescues Linda (Hudgens) from thugs and takes her to his house for safe keeping. And so, Beauty and the Beast.
It is not all that interesting to watch since it is aimed directly at a teen audience (who like their entertainment in the Twilight zone) and even they have tended to give blogging thumbs down. Which means that there is space for doing a similar story, only better.
BIG MAMMA’S BOY
(Australia, 2011, d. Franco de Chiera)
Not to be confused with the Martin Lawrence comedies where he is a detective disguised as Big Momma for his investigations. This one has an Australian spelling for Mamma and is distinctly Australian – or, at least, Italian-Australian?.
If you were to put your mind to writing an outline for a screenplay about a middle-aged man still living with his doting Italian mother, with a grandfather in the background, who works in real estate and seems to be good at it, who sings (well) at a club and who encounters a co-worker with whom he falls in love but Mamma cannot accept because she is not Italian and who engineers a girl to come out from the homeland..., then you would probably come up with most of what is in the film. You might be a bit more restrained on the sex angle and relationships though agreeing with the female characters who find the macho office types more than irksome. You would probably have all the food elements. You might not have thought to have some Greek characters as well, especially the boss of the agency. But, the writer and star of the film, Frank Lotito, has – and they are all here. Which puts this in the tradition of Wogboy, Take Away and the Kings of Mykonos, although they were a bit better.
This means that Big Mamma’s Boy has its humorous moments, its stereotypical moments, its crass moments and, ultimately, its heart in the right place. It is not demanding in any way.
Frank Lotito does not create a consistent character, bashful one moment, brashful the next, under Mamma’s thumb one moment, then defying her, in love with Katie one moment and ready to two-time her the next. Maybe, Lotito is actually saying Italian-Australian? men are like this. Hard to know. Carmelina de Guglielmo fulfils all the expectations for Mamma. But, Holly Valance is attractive as Katie and, though she does her best, I was not persuaded that she really loved our hero and could spend the rest of her life with him after their move from Eaglemont to Ivanhoe – a Melbourne story.
(UK, 2011, d. Phil Traill)
It was a bit of a shock to realise that this was a British film – having assumed it was American. It does sound like one of those American films about young people, a junior romantic comedy. In fact, it is very much like that in plot and types of characters. However, there is a bit more of British edge and some comic touches about it that puts it a notch or two above its US equivalents.
The film is also absolutely formulaic – or predictable (which sound a little less positive). But, the formula is tried and true: young girl from the wrong side of the tracks (actually, here from a working-class part of London) stuck in a dead-end, fast-food outlet job, but with a skill that is going to come in more than handy when a competition arises (skateboarding here which will translate into snowboarding), dead mother, old codger father (a sympathetic Bill Bailey), a chance for a job at a chalet in the Austrian Alps among the posh and snobbish, a romance with the son and heir, some deception, frustration, temptation to give up, a chance because of a generous gesture, victory, and having it all. Perhaps that spoils it by outlining the plot, but once it starts, that is what you would be expecting anyway.
Because Felicity Jones is a perky, common-sensed and interestingly attractive actress, we are on side right from the start. And, talk about product placement, not just the Tesco bags which do appear, but Austria itself. It looks beautiful, the mountains and snow glittering, the comfortable chalet, the chair lifts and the slopes – plenty of Austria and I wouldn’t be surprised if many in the audience decided that there they must go there and that they should take up skiing or snowboarding.
The leading man is Ed Westwick, one of those heartthrobs in the Robert Pattinson vein. He could actually pass for Robert Pattinson’s brother. His parents are played by Brooke Shields being haughty and mean and Bill Nighy being surprisingly ordinary and nice.
Our heroine makes some bad judgments despite her common sense, gets tangled in a relationship that she should have given far more thought to – but learning one’s lessons and finding true love, which means commitment, is what most romantic comedies are about.
CONAN THE BARBARIAN
(US, 2011, d. Marcus Nispel)
Thirty years ago, there was a fad for swords and sorcery movies. The best-known of these was Conan the Barbarian, followed by Conan the Destroyer. And, of course, it starred in pre-Terminator days, the future governor of California. I don’t think he has to worry about his Conan laurels. And, though not gifted with political prophecy, I don’t think Jason Momoa will ever be governor of California (but the Reagan era put paid to such non-prophecies).
This version is quite ugly and brutal all the way through. (And the Foley talent works very hard and loud with bone-crunching effect.) Conan, in a rare moment of pause let alone reflection, says after Tamara, the heroine who looks demure but learns to despatch enemies with Conan-like gusto, asks Conan whether there is any meaning in existence or whether it is all chaos rather than destiny, ‘I live, I love, I slay, I am content’. Seems as though many audiences are less content than Conan. While the character from Robert Sherwood’s comics is there, and this tends to be a prequel to the Schwarzenegger epics, it is all rather the same and the same and the same, confrontations, battles, slayings. And it is often literally dark (more so when you are wearing the dark 3D glasses).
One of the difficulties is that while Jason Momoa looks the part, he does not really stand out, does not have the charismatic presence of, say, Dwayne Johnson, who could have been a more vigorous and even a twinkle-in-the-eye Conan.
Stephen Lang does villains well and he is a loathsome character here, with Rose McGowan? as his smouldering witch daughter. Ron Perlman appears early as Conan’s father who is killed giving his son the motivation for revenge.
Not very well written. Not very well directed. Not very good at all.
(US, 2011, d. Robert Redford)
For those who enjoy a well-written and well-acted look back into history, especially if it involves a court case.
The conspirator in questions is Mary Surratt whose son, John, was one of the rebel group led by John Wilkes Booth, who had planned to kidnap the president and hold him to ransom in exchange for the freedom of Southern prisoners. John Wilkes Booth famously shot Abraham Lincoln during a performance at the Ford Theatre in Washington in April 1865. There were plans to attack the Vice President as well as the Secretary of State. The conspirators met at the boarding house run by Mary Surratt. She was arrested as being party to the plot and was tried in a military court.
The film is also a portrait of Frederick Aiken, the young lawyer who had severed in the Union Army, who was deputed to defend Mary Surratt, something he found abhorrent in the aftermath of what he experienced in fighting and in the hostile atmosphere in the North after the assassination. He assumed her guilty. He does his duty and discovers the case is not so open and shut, that the authorities, especially the Secretary for War, and the army chiefs, had really made up their minds that, allegedly, to satisfy public opinion against the conspirators, and to ensure that the South would not attack the North in any way, Mary Surratt had to be executed.
While the film follows the detail of the trial, it also shows the bigotry in national feeling after such a politically violent event as well as the repercussion on the young lawyer and his personal and professional integrity.
The film has been directed by Robert Redford who obviously has strong views on partisan stances in the name of patriotism. This was seen in his Lions for Lambs which did not succeed with critics or the public, looking as it did into American involvement in Afghanistan and the attitudes of authorities and the media. It is clear in The Conspirator that audiences should be remembering the feeling after the September 11th attacks in 2001 and the hostile attitudes to people from the Middle East and to Muslims. The trial sequences here should make audiences reflect on cases at Guantanamo Bay.
But, putting those considerations aside, we can enjoy The Conspirator as a drama that takes us back to the Civil War and its aftermath.
James Mc Evoy has emerged as a versatile actor in very different films, Narnia, Wanted, The Last Station. He is Frederick Aiken. Robin Wright gives a quietly intense and dignified performance as Mary Surratt. Danny Huston is the prosecutor and Colm Meaney, the overbearing and biased president of the court, over-ruling all Aiken’s objections. There is also a strong performance from Kevin Kline as the implacable Secretary for War, from Evan Rachel Wood as Anna Surratt and Stephen Root as a turncoat witness.
Some critics have complained that The Conspirator is simply a filmed history lesson. It is – but it is much more.
COWBOYS AND ALIENS
(US, 2011, d. Jon Favreau)
Almost fifty years ago there was the absurdly specific title, Santa Claus vs the Martians. That was quite a juxtaposition. Cowboys and Aliens seems an absurd title, not so specific. In the past there were these small science-fiction-fantasy B-budget entertainments. Now we have the A-budget, A-cast entertainment that takes the old conventions of the western and the old convention s of those 1950s alien invasion melodramas, put them together and, presto, Cowboys and Aliens.
Not that it isn’t a holiday entertainment, an upmarket throwback to the old serials and matinees days. And who to give it some respectability? The present grim-faced James Bond himself, Daniel Craig and Indiana Jones, now a grizzled, gruff and raspy Harrison Ford. Actor Jon Favreau directed the two Iron Man movies.
It all opens in the old West, but we have an immediate clue when we see the 21st century wristband that Jake Lonergan (Craig) is wearing. But, the screenplay wisely keeps tantalising us. We wonder about this man, at first with no name and no memory, whether he is the alien. We get hints as the film goes on. An explanation (perfectly logical in the circumstances) towards the end of the film.
Then there are plenty of cowboys, toughs and robbers, cattle hands and cattle barons (Ford is the patriarchal baron), the western town, the sheriff (Keith Carradine), the wastrel son of the baron (Paul Dano) who likes to throw his somewhat puny weight around, and his Indian minder (Adam Beach). There is a mysterious woman, Ella (Olivia Wilde) who is clearly something more than she seems. After some western standoffs and arrests, the aliens get going on the town, mystifying one and all. Suddenly, in this war of the worlds where revolvers don’t stand a chance against space ships, individuals are being instantly swooped and swept into the air and into the spacecraft. And there are lots, LOTS, of explosions.
That obviously means a posse has to go in pursuit and the lone hero has to show his mettle. There are confrontations with the Indians, but this is a 21st century perception of the 19th, so the Indians combine forces with the cowboys (and the racist baron) to rescue the human hostages and destroy the aliens. The aliens themselves look like beings straight out of the old movies, no glamour, just monstrous (especially in size and in close-ups). We discover their dastardly plan and are ready to cheer on the goodies against these creatures (the word ‘alien’ not being available at that time to describe what is going on).
This is a close encounter of the reverse kind.
What we have is a bit popcorn holiday movie and it has its moments. The thought came while watching the familiar elements of both western and science fiction that it still had quite some originality – but a derivative originality. And, deciding on this phrase to end the review, I enjoyed it all the more.
FACE TO FACE
(Australia, 2011, d. Michael Rymer)
A film that should interest all who are involved in disputes and conflict resolution – which means all of us.
David Moore, an Australian workplace consultant, has worked in the area for some years. The process of Community Conferencing was used in cases of youth justice: an offender, the person attacked, friends, relatives, employers and others were invited, and consented, to be part of the meeting where a facilitated discussion took place whereby members felt free to express themselves and the facilitator enabled responses to be made with an end to finding some kind of resolution. These conferences are also called ‘Restorative Justice Conferences’. Clearly this kind of mediation and communication can be more personally effective than courts and litigation. The potential is strong for workplace issues like harassment, for school bullying situations. It has potential for enabling restorative justice in organisations and in religious groups and churches.
Playwright David Williamson became interested in these processes and wrote three plays dramatising cases. David Moore interested director, Michael Rymer (Australian Film Institute winner for Angel Baby in 1995) in the plays and he adapted one of them for the screen and directed this film, Face to Face.
The screenplay takes advantage of the screen medium. While the main scenes of the film take place in the conference room (with plenty of possibilities for close-ups and for pacy cross-cut editing during interchanges), there are opportunities to go outside the room, for the audience to see episodes played out in fact (which gives the audience the advantage over the characters themselves, and the facilitator, because we see all episodes whereas the characters can only remember what they were involved in).
One of the main strengths of the film is David Williamson’s dialogue, realistic, sometimes rough and ready in an Australian expletive way. His skill in arranging the interchanges and confrontations so that audience sympathy shifts as we understand the character better, find that we were judging on appearances and, as the characters begin to realise, there are many factors in a conflict so that it is not simply a matter of ‘just clearing it up and getting an apology’.
In this case, drawn from actual notes, a young worker has crashed into the back of his employer’s car because he was angry at being fired. He is not an intelligent young man but he was happy with his job. We see the crash and are obviously sympathetic towards the company manager and his wife who sees the aftermath. (How would we feel if it happened to us?). However, as the mediation continues, all kinds of problems arise: the butt of jokes on a building site, racist slurs and the anger they incur, authorities knowing what was going on and not intervening; then there are the site problems, communications and issues of pay which sow discontent and give rise to anger and harassment; then there are the financial issues of people living beyond their means, envy; there are also relationship issues, within marriage and outside it. It is surprising how much material the film gets through in its not very long running time.
The acting is persuasive. We can believe that all the characters are real. They have enough solid Williamson dialogue to speak. They have blind spots and hostilities. But they are challenged to face them.
Of course, someone will say it is all very contrived. But, that is the point. It is a contrived process for justice. And it relies on the skill of the facilitator, both sympathetic and fair and firm. I think most audiences will be drawn into the dispute – not too far from some of our own experiences, and will be moved by the moments of resolution.
Matthew Newton is the facilitator and does a fine job of showing how it could be done. Luke Ford stands out as the young man with a short fuse, the target of workers’ jokes that have dire consequences. Vince Colosimo is believable as the boss (who, as he realises, has very few redeeming qualities). Sigrid Thornton is his long-suffering wife. An excellent group of character actors bring the proceedings alive: the young man’s mother, the foreman, the Arab worker (who came to the country aged eight but is still a target of jokes), the mousy accountant, the attractive PA, the young man’s best friend.
Always an interesting film. But, it should also prove a useful film for studying and discussion.
FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS
(US, 2011, d. Will Gluck)
There is something distinctive about so many of the American romantic comedies in recent times. When we say ‘romantic comedy’, many of us think of the rather nice romances of the past, G or PG in their style and humour, or the ‘screwball comedies’ which were so popular in the 1930s and have become classics. Think It Happened One Night – which is now almost eighty years old. 21st romantic comedies tend not to be G or PG rated. Friends with Benefits is one of these.
The modern romantic comedy has a lot of screwball behaviour and jokes (I hadn’t intended any innuendo when I just typed this but I realised immediately that it is there and is relevant). But, the language is often direct and frank. The situations are also often direct and frank and not neatly moral. Sex scenes are often not inhibited. But, with the most popular of them, especially those produced and/or directed by Jud Apatow, they start looking and sounding rather raucous and permissive. But, the characters go through some painful experiences. They gain some wisdom. They finish up with an emphasis on commitment that they did not anticipate at the beginning.
The best of these contemporary romantic comedies, which many older audiences are put off because of their directness and tend to think of as offensive, make some sense to the audience in their 20s and 30s and are alerts to this audience that relationships, friendships and love require something deeper than the original shenanigans.
Friends with Benefits starts with two couples breaking up. One, he, in Los Angeles, is an art designer for a website. One, she, in New York, is a headhunter of talent for companies. When they meet in New York where she wants to recruit him to work for the magazine, GQ, they click. Wanting to avoid the clichés of popular romantic comedy and movies (which they list and the movie sends up, often quite amusingly), they decide that sex is possible, not love, while they become best friends. Needless to say, ultimately they...
Justin Timberlake does very well as Dylan, the designer, who is reserved in emotions, protecting his deeper self. Mila Kunis is vivacity personified as Jamie, an intense theorist about friendship, cautious about love, but who falls in love despite herself. The characters are better written and performed than in many similar films.
Patricia Clarkson as Jamie’s lighthearted wayward mother and Richard Jenkins’ as Dylan’s sympathetic father struggling with Alzheimers are able to offer advice and urge their children on to love.
There are some funny one-liners and incidental jokes, a send up of gooey romance films and Woody Harrelson as the flamboyantly gay sports editor at GQ.
This is life as it is rather than as it should be – except that it acknowledges this and tries to do something about it.
POM WONDERFUL'S THE GREATEST STORY EVER SOLD
(US, 2011, d. Morgan Spurlock)
Morgan Spurlock has proven himself as a documentarist but also as film-maker with a sly sense of humour and with his tongue in his cheek. This was true of his previous spoof on the search for the leader of Al Quaeda, ‘Where in the Hell is Osama bin Laden?’. He had to take his tongue out of his cheek a bit for the film before that, ‘Supersize Me’, so that he could go on a month’s opposite of a Mc Donalds’ Ramadan, by eating only at the fast food outlets and indulging in Supersizing to discover what it would do to him. He had his satire while he ate it.
This time, a lesser effort than the previous two, he is able to have his cake and eat it too. That is, he spoofs a subject that he is dependent on for making his film.
Making a play on The Greatest Story Ever Told, he indulges it so that all advertising in the film is ‘the greatest’ of everything. And that is what the film is about, advertising, specifically, product placement in the movies.
The film is about the making of the film – but mainly before the film is made. Spurlock genially, sometimes self-deprecatingly, takes us through a process of making a pitch to companies to become sponsors for his film and contribute to the budget. He also approaches marketing experts, program analysis experts and legal advisers. We sit in on all these discussions. Lots of being turned down. Then with Pom Wonderful (a drinks – or, as they say in the US – a beverage company) coming on board, he is off and running fast.
This means that the bulk of the film is about the process and looking behind the scenes of the marketing world – with a number of references to movies. Finally, there are some commercials for the sponsors and a gig on late night television with Jimmy Fallon promoting the film (and we see the extent of all possible locations for promotion, literally everywhere) which becomes part of the film itself.
Spurlock also consults Noam Chomsky and interviews Ralph Nader – and there is an enjoyable gag at the end with Ralph Nader accepting a sponsor’s gift.
We probably knew quite a bit of this already or, at least, suspected it. But, it is enjoyable to watch it in action, extraverted American style.
(US, 2011, d. Martin Campbell)
Yet another DC Comics superhero. Others include Batman and Superman. In fact, this presentation of Green Lantern more than resembles Superman. We open in space, on far distant planets where Guardians keep an eye on the universe (sitting aloft on tall pillars) and delegate the powers of Green Lantern, a community of protectors, to the thousands who keep vigil in the vastness of space. However, an imprisoned evil power, Parallax, has escaped internment and is on the galactic prowl, instilling fear which enables it to devour whole fearful planets and their populations. Obviously, not good.
Despite the spectacle and effects, this seemed more than a bit silly.
Meanwhile on earth, Hal Jordan is a test pilot for a huge corporation and, while transfixed by memories of his ace father who died in a fiery crash, ditches his plane to the dismay of his employers, a wheeler-dealing senator and the workers (who later bash him up). How could he be a superhero when he is a self-confessed ‘screw-up’? Actually, the theme of ‘I’m only human’ is a plus for him so that he does not suffer from hubris when he finds he is the chosen one for earth (read US). Ryan Reynolds has been in lots of raucous comedies as well as romantic comedy and he is not necessarily a first choice for Green Lantern. Even he has to be reprimanded by a fish alien (with Geoffrey Rush’s voice) because of his vanity in his lycra suit.
So we have intergalactic contact and a superhero costume and mask- disguised on earth (though it is a relief when his girl-friend, Carol (Blake Lively), recognises him and helps out). His close friend Tom (Takia Waititi, the NZ director of Eagle vs Shark and Boy) is also in on it. So eventually, is Hector, the unfortunate son of the senator (Tim Robbins) who has been jealous of Hal and Carol, who is brought it to examine the corpse of the hero who landed on earth to recruit Hal, but who is infected by Parallax evil and becomes disfigured in mind and body and becomes the evil human villain (Peter Sarsgaard).
Hal has to do the Superman thing a couple of times, but has to go to the Guardians to train (he is not into that) and to offer himself for the final superheroics against the swirling black cloud that is Parallax. And this after a pep talk from Carol who explains the difference between fearless and courageous.
Come to think of it, this plot and treatment still seems a little silly, so Green Lantern is not one of the best DC Comics superhero movies.
(US, 2011, d. Tate Taylor)
It’s not quite accurate to say that one will enjoy The Help. Actually, one might be squirming in one’s seat at times – for the right reasons. This is a film about American racism, as late as 1967. Some of the sequences are so effective in displaying how seemingly well brought up young woman can be so patronising, condescending and unjust to their maids, ‘the help’.
Box-office has been high for The Help. It is one of those movies that you realise taps into the wide audience sensibility, that the characters are humane enough for audiences to identify with them, and that the issues are important enough to be concerned about. It’s the type of film that turns up with Oscar nominations (a bit like the response to The King’s Speech), that people vote for, able to overlook some of the stereotyping or other limitations that critics point out, because they liked the film so much and were moved.
The film is an adaptation of a popular novel by a white writer, Kathryn Stockett. The central character of The Help is a hopeful white writer, Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan, played with sunny confidence and concern by Emma Stone who has shown she is a talented performer in comedies and does very well here, especially in challenging presuppositions about race and the help. But, it is the black women who are at the core of the story, the maids whose ancestors were slaves, whose mothers and grandmothers were slaves in the southern states like Mississippi, which is the location for this story.
Viola Davis has shown great versatility in her roles (a police chief in Law Abiding Citizen, an upset mother in Doubt). She holds this film together with her rich interpretation of Aibeleen, telling her story, patient with hardships, at home with poverty and a son who returned from Vietnam damaged, but spending her days in the homes of the rich, bringing affection to their often neglected children. Then there is Octavia Spencer as the large, amiable but more often irascible, Minny, who perpetrates a literally distasteful trick on the haughtiest of the young mothers in the town. They show different faces of human dignity while locked in a society that still deems them inferior – and thinks it is doing them a favour by building a separated toilet for their use at work (because they have stupid presuppositions about health, hygiene, in different races).
Skeeter persuades Aibileen to tell her story as well as Minny who is initially reluctant. Aibileen writes down her story and, eventually, the other maids tell theirs. Skeeter has a New York publisher connection (Mary Steenburgen) and the stories are published as The Help. There are many enjoyably prickly scenes as the locals read the book – and react.
Bryce Dallas Howard must be particularly good as the ringleader of the well-dressed and ‘progressive’ wives because we cannot help loathing her. By contrast, Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life) is also effective as the ‘trailer-trash’ wife whom the others despise. For bonus, Allison Janney is Skeeter’s mother who has a sad and bigoted story of her own which concerns her former maid, played by veteran Cicely Tyson. And Sissy Spacek is there too as Bryce Dallas Howard’s mother who is losing it in the battle against dementia.
This is a film where men take a back seat, either pleasantly supportive husbands, or pleasant young men who suddenly show that they are tarred with the same bigoted brush as the young women.
Perhaps many of the characters are stereotypes of southerners of that era, even acting occasionally in caricature fashion. While that may be a limitation on The Help as a work of cinema art, the film works very well in dramatising issues from the past which need to be remembered and repented of, a warning that racism is often virulent just under the surface.
HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN
(Canada, 2010, Jason Eisener)
A very ugly film.
It started as a jokey interlude, some false trailers inserted into the intermission space in the Quentin Tarantino-Robert? Rodriguez homage to 70s exploitation drive-in features, Grindhouse. Canadian Jason Eisener submitted one, Hobo with a Shotgun, which was used in the Canadian release of Grindhouse. These trailers were more entertaining than Tarantino’s Death Proof or Rodriguez Planet Terror which comprised Grindhouse. But the jokes have gone beyond the joke with 2010’s Machete, a slasher drama with Rodriguez himself turning a trailer into a feature film. Now, Eisener has ‘developed’ it into a full-length Hobo with a Shotgun.
He takes the title very literally. Rutger Hauer is a vagrant who rides the trains and arrives at a town, ironically called Hope City, which is a mixture of normalcy and anarchy (filmed in Nova Scotia!). Audiences of straight-to-DVD actioners will appreciate the presence of Hauer in so many films like this. The Hobo discovers the ugly side of town which is controlled by a gangster who owns a nightclub and his two absolutely disreputable sons. The many confrontations are staged with sneers, snarls, facial grimaces of disdain – which are so in your face that they seem either stupid or funny or both. The Hobo rarely smiles.
He encounters a young prostitute exploited by the gangsters who takes the Hobo in when he has been violently roughed up (which happens more than once). While local TV reports the chaos, while the locals just stand round intimidated or run away, the Hobo starts on a vigilante mission not of reform but of clearing and cleaning the town of human garbage (including the corrupt police in cahoots with the gangsters). Which is what he does with R 18 graphic violence in close-up – with so much brutality and so many weapons that it is disgustingly preposterous and perverse, which can raise glee for audiences who lap up this kind of thing.
The film is obviously in sympathy with the need for cleansing evils (a striking scene is of a pervert dressed as Santa Claus spying with binoculars at children in a playground – then a goodbye Santa blast, where Santa is an anagram of Satan). However, it follows the Grindhouse lead of slambang action and full-on violence – and torture – to make things right.
Eisener is a better editor (putting both the slam and the bang into his cross-cutting) than he is director. While he does capture the look of the old exploitation films, bright technicolour, the dingy interiors, the squalid exteriors, the seemingly ham performances of the cast in trash dialogue and action, it leaves the audience with the jokey exploitation, focusing on the film itself without much felt need to go beyond it.
(US, 2011, d. Seth Gordon)
Hitchcock did it seriously. Strangers on a Train. Danny de Vito did it for laughs. Throw Momma from the Train. The three men with horrible bosses note this when they are advised by their ‘murder consultant’ that they should each get rid of another’s boss. Horrible Bosses does not take itself too seriously and plays the scenario for laughs. And, generally, gets them.
We are immediately introduced to Nick (Jason Bateman who does this engaging put upon victim often but well) who is two minutes late to work for his megalomaniac and paranoid boss, Kevin Spacey. Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) gets on well with his boss (Donald Sutherland) but not his cokehead, sex-addict son, a surprising Colin Farrell. Meanwhile, Dale (Charlie Day) is sexually harassed by his dentist (a surprisingly aggressive and lewd Jennifer Aniston). The murder consultant, who has a story of his own, is Jamie Foxx.
The guys get together each evening for a drink and get to talking about what life would be like without their bosses – which leads to a search for a hitman (with a funny offbeat toilet humour detour along the way with Ioann Gruffyd as a ‘wetman’ whom they mistake for a killer). Actually, the film could have been called Bumbling and Bungling Employees, as most of the film is taken up with their casing their targets, intruding into their houses and making a lot of false assumptions and mistakes.
While the mechanism which leads to the resolution of the case, which you might guess when you see what they lose in Kevin Spacey’s bedroom, is contrived, it is nonetheless an entertaining way of getting rid of the bosses.
While the bullying of Spacey and the grossly insensitive exploitation of Farrell are obvious (and irritating for employees and audience), it is the sexual harassment issue that demands a bit more attention. This is role reversal from the usual headline cases – and Kurt is such a womaniser that he can’t quite see Dale’s difficulties – that it highlights the male chauvinist attitudes that cannot recognise sexual harassment for the serious problem that it is. And Jennifer Aniston’s comeuppance is not as drastic as murder but pulls her up dead (so to speak).
Director Seth Gordon has been more of a documentary maker, so he obviously has enjoyed making a comedy. The writers of The Hangover are her again, obviously opting for the raucous and raunchy treatment rather than the refined. In the tradition of The Hangover and Bridesmaids, as they say.
(France, 2010, d. Sylvain Chomet)
Tatischeff is a magician/illusionist who, in the late 1950s, is becoming something of an anachronism in the theatres and music halls where he performs. He also has a recalcitrant rabbit who won’t stay in his hat. Out of work, he travels to London where he is upstaged by a 1960s rock and roll group (and the encores for their adoring female fans). What is he to do? He goes to Scotland, encounters a young woman who believes he is really a magician. Meanwhile, he works in a hotel and cares for the young woman, a father-figure.
Eventually, he goes away, leaving a note to say that he is not really a magician. Fortunately, there is an attentive young man who will love and care for the girl.
That’ is the plot outline for a screenplay written by Jacques Tati (full name Tatischeff) in the 1950s but never filmed. It has been taken up by director, Sylvain Chomet, who had made the intriguing animation, Les Triplettes de Belleville (like The Illusionist, Oscar-nominated for Best Animation Film).
For Tati fans (and those who will seek him out after seeing this film and discover his classics, Jour de Fete, M. Hulot’s Holiday, Mon Oncle (a scene of which is playing at the local cinema for the magician to watch), Playtime), the film will be a delight as well as a wry reminder of Tati’s own life and his abandoning one of his daughters. There are also playful, generally wordless, occasions like that of the puppet in the shop window whose price goes down each time we pass until it is still there, but ‘Free’.
The animation is a blend of the realistic and the elongated, a bit like the tall, thin Jacques Tati himself and the magician Tatischeff whose walk, gestures and stances, especially hand at the back of the hip, observing, are just like M. Hulot. The backgrounds of Paris, London and Edinburgh have been given special realistic/impressionistic attention. The parody of the rock group and the lead singer is funnily effective.
Brief, slight, evocative.
(UK, 2011, d. Cary Fukunaga)
Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, both published in 1847, by Charlotte Bronte and Emily Bronte, with male noms-de-plume, have become English classics as well as the sources for many film versions. Here is a 21st century version. It is directed by an American, Cary Fukunaga whose other feature film was Sin Nombre, a look at migrants from Central America heading for the United States.
We are immersed in the world of Yorkshire, moors, crags, dales, the isolation, the seasons. The atmosphere is very realistic. However, this is a 19th century Gothic tale of a mansion, dark corridors, vast rooms and eerie sounds from a sealed part of the house. But it is also Dickensian in its picture of orphans treated badly by hostile relatives and, even worse, in an orphanage school with canings on the back and a headmaster with a hell and damnation approach to discipline. Jane suffers all this.
When she obtains a position as governess at Thornfield, the mansion of Edward Fairfax Rochester, she bonds with the housekeeper, Mrs Fairfax, and her French student, Adele, the past can be forgotten.
However, the film starts with Jane alone on the moors, running away from Thornfield, drenched on the carriage tracks and finally collapsing at a rectory where she is taken in and cared for by a minister and his sisters. It is from the rectory that the events of Jane’s childhood and in the orphanage are seen as flashbacks. When she recovers, she remembers all that happened at Thornfield, of her encounter with the enigmatic and severe Rochester, watching his courtship of a neighbour, Blanche Ingram, then finding that he proposes to her and that she loves him. But, most audiences probably know already what Rochester’s secret is and how it will ruin Jane’s marriage.
Mia Wasikowska (who was Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland) is a young, rather plain and reserved while assertive, Jane. Though she sometimes looks impassively stoic, she has invited us into her heart and mind so that we know what she is thinking and feeling. Michael Fassbender seems a younger Rochester (though he was five years older than Orson Welles was when he was Rochester in the 1943 version), dashing and, as Jane says, abrupt. Judi Dench plays the housekeeper with great warmth. Jamie Bell is the Reverend St John Rivers, a mature presence reminding us that his Billy Elliott and other juvenile roles are over. There are cameos from Sally Hawkins as Mrs Reid, Simon Mc Burney as the righteous Henry Brocklehurst and Valentina Cervi as Bertha Mason.
Most audiences will enjoy Jane Eyre, even if they have seen other versions (with Joan Fontaine, Susannah York and Charlotte Gainsbourg and Orson Welles, George C. Scott and William Hurt). It is both austere and emotional.
(France, 2010, d. Alain Corneau)
A rather trite title for what is a much more complex murder drama. The main people that the central characters love is themselves.
This is the final film from distinguished French director, Alain Corneau (Choice of Arms and the drama about 17th century music, All the Mornings of the World/Tous les matins du monde). It is a character study as well as a drama for the committing of the perfect crime. I should have picked up the clue (well, I partly did) that had the power to unravel the perfect plan.
The film offers very meaty roles to Ludivine Sagnier and Kristin Scott Thomas (as a French character without some explanation, as in other French films she appears in, that she has a British background). We see the two together at the opening. Kristin Scott Thomas is the boss, supremely confident, and Ludivine Sagnier is the mousy, bespectacled assistant, who is hard-working and intelligent. They profess devotion to each other. The boss also encourages her protégé to seize the day – no matter what. And, of course, this is what happens. And it becomes a battle of wits and tactics, disloyalties and betrayals, some humiliations and, ultimately, vengeful violence.
There is also the boss’s husband, debonair and handsome, but financially crooked and emotionally fickle.
The first part of the film sets up the characters and the conflicts in the context of international business deals as well as in more intimate interrelationships. Then the crime.
We see who did it, so it is not a murder mystery. The mystery is how the murderer can get away with it. And the method is not what we (or the police) would expect, fascinating to see how the murder, cold-blooded, was set up, and tracks covered (with some black and white flashbacks to fill out the detail) and a plot to incriminate a third party. Intrigue, on the part of the killer, and intriguing for the audience.
I have been careful not to give away who is murderer and victim – much better if you come to the love crime without knowing what is going to happen.
(US, 2011, d. Scott Stewart)
No, not another film exploring the Catholic priesthood and celibacy. Rather, this is another graphic novel (from a Korean author) showing the struggle between good and evil.
Actually, there is an amount of Catholic background and iconography in the film. However, it simply means that the makers have some familiarity with things Catholic but are offering them as images and plot devices rather than indicating any understanding of the Church. This is explained quite early in what is a short film (under 90 minutes). During the credits, the screen is filled with effective, narrative graphic novel panels which means that we are not to be taking anything literally. This is an alternate world, a world of fantasy.
But, what is this world like?
It is dark, frequently dark. Daylight scenes in the desert come as something of a surprise and a relief. Vampires (looking like mutant monsters rather than variations on a well-dressed Dracula) have conquered the world and forced humans into retreat. However, the Church has nominated priests who are warriors to destroy the vampires and intern them in settlements. These priests, having achieved their task, are now retired and forgotten (like veterans returning home after some wars). Paul Bettany plays the central Priest, a former champion, who keeps dreaming of a trap where his colleague (Karl Urban) fell to his death. He communicates this to the Monsignor in charge. He is played by Christopher Plummer with full authority and resonant voice. The whole thing (and the city visuals) seem like a post-Blade Runner civilisation.
Then, we are in the desert, just like a western, and what seems like a variation on the plot of The Searchers. A young girl is abducted by marauding vampires, her parents killed. Her fiancé, a local sheriff (Cam Gigandet), goes to the Priest to get his help in tracking down the abducted girl. The Monsignor refuses permission for this mission but the Priest goes anyway (you can quickly work out why). Enter the Priestess (Maggie Q), sent to control the Priest but who assists him (with moves and leaps like The Matrix choreography) and causes a great deal of damage including charging an oncoming train (filled with vampire pods) on a motorbike.
It seems that the Priest’s partner did not die but has been vampirised – which, of course, leads to a spectacular confrontation, between the Priest and Black Hat, as his is now called.
Actually, Priest delivers exactly what it set out to do with an appeal only to its niche audience of graphic novel fans.
THE RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
(US, 2011, d. Rupert Wyatt)
Many remember their shock at the end of Planet of the Apes (1968) when Charlton Heston rounds a cliff and discovers the prone head of the Statue of Liberty and realises that he is not on some foreign shore on another planet, but the planet of the apes is Earth itself. The film made such an impact that there were four sequels in the late 1960s and early 1970s as well as a television series. Then Tim Burton remade or, as was said at the time,‘re-imagined’ it in 2001, not one of his best efforts.
Which means that while audiences were interested in another Apes movie, the expectations were, to say the least, mixed. After seeing this film, I would not be against another sequel. The Rise of the Planet of the Apes is pretty good.
We are in the future (space exploration on Mars) though San Francisco looks the same as usual, always attractive and the film makes good use of the streets, the Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge (for a well thought out and executed climax) and the Muir Woods. James Franco is Will, spending years developing a drug to combat senility. His boss (British stage actor, David Oweloyo) is interested only in money-making with little concern about the apes that are used to test the drug. During a demonstration of the drug, one of the apes breaks out and mayhem ensues. Will leaves but takes the drug home to help his father (John Lithgow) who is suffering from dementia. He also takes home a baby ape, Caesar, who becomes part of the household, especially as Will’s father recovers and improves.
All might have gone on undisturbed, until Caesar goes outside the house and disturbs a neighbour (who gets his comeuppance during the final credits). Injured, he is taken to a vet, who (as might be guessed, falls in love with Will). She is played by Freida Pinto from Slumdog Millionnaire.
When Caesar is in trouble again with the neighbour (trying to drive), he is taken to a monkey pound where all is nice on the surface but it is an animal gaol presided over by Brian Cox and his sadistic son (Tom Felton more villainous than his Draco Malfoy). Of course, it is too much and Caesar (performance-captured by Andy Serkis as it was for Gollum and King Kong and the character then animated) whose intelligence has been developing means that it is time and we are ready for the rise and revolt of the Apes.
When they do escape, the effects and stunts for the chaos are excellent and exciting (except that the number of apes seems to increase and multiply without explanation), making expert use of the city, especially the Golden Gate Bridge climax.
Of course, it is all due to human exploitation and not the apes’ fault. Caesar tries to control the situation,
Because this story is a prequel to all the other apes films – and, because the screenplay leaves it open for more – there may well be a sequel since the film was both well reviewed and popular at the box-office.
(Spain, 2010, d. Miguel Vivas)
Best to say first that, though this is an expertly crafted film, its subject matter and treatment are not what most audiences would choose to see.
Not that its plot has not been seen on screen before. There were two versions of The Desperate Hours, in 1955 and in 1990, where a family was kept in their house by violent intruders. Austrian Michael Haneke made the alarming Funny Games in 1997, where two young men tormented a family in their home. He remade it in 2007, scene by scene in an American setting.
This time we are in Spain, a prosperous family who have just moved into a new and better house which, in mid-sentence about how they will celebrate, three masked burglars burst in through the window. Their treatment of the family is brutal, action offscreen at first, but more coming into focus as the film goes on. The director has used a hand-held camera to heighten the intensity and urgency and most of the takes are quite long, meaning that the audience follows the characters around the house, sharing their anxieties and their pain. At times, the device of a split screen is used so that we see two aspects of the story but can choose to look at one if we find the other too gruelling.
The action takes place during one night with the three members of the family, mother, father and 18 year old daughter, and the three burglars (who, as is the trend in many European films, are from Eastern Europe – which suggests that they are being made something of a scapegoat for social unrest and crime in Western Europe). Most of the action is within the house, though one criminal takes the father to ATMS to withdraw savings. A few others come into the picture, the girl’s boyfriend, a security guard and a frightened woman at an ATM.
There is a mysterious opening, focusing on a bound man with a bag over his head who struggles to stop a motorist to warn his family. An alternative story? A dream? Just a tease?
Had there been some hope at the end rather than a nihilistic pessimism, the film might offer some catharsis to those identifying with the family and their plight. But, this is more like Jacobean drama with everyone dead on stage, a disaster story rather than a tragedy.
(UK, 2010, d. Asif Kapadia)
This documentary has been acclaimed by critics (who welcomed its not having a talking head narrator as well as its editing of a vast amount of race footage and commentaries) and by fans of Formula 1. It is clearly a labour of love for British director, Asif Kapadia (The Warrior, The Return, Far North) who assembled thousands of feet of film and sifted through them to offer a documentary portrait of Brazilian three time world champion, Ayrton Senna.
Enthusiasts for the film have offered the disclaimer that Senna is not just for petrol heads or more respectable followers for Formula 1. That may be. But, many people also have an aversion to this sport, its noise, its big business and cigarette company sponsorship (much in evidence here), the contribution of national and local governments, its politics and rivalries and its dangers. All of these are very evident in Senna. They make it just that bit more difficult for some audiences to enjoy the film (as was the case with this reviewer). That reservation being offered for the wary, we can ask what the film does do.
First of all, it features a great deal of material with Senna himself. Born in 1960 in Sao Paolo to a comfortable family, a teenage competitor in Karting competition, and then introduced into Formula 1 in his early twenties, he was dead at the age of 34 in a racing crash that was seen the world over on television. He comes across as a genial personality but also a fairly driven (no pun intended) competitor. He had natural driving skills and concentration (and we are shown some footage from his on-car camera during races), and appreciated being a world champion. But he also comes across as sometimes self-deprecating, truly loyal to Brazil, and contributing to the well being of his compatriots in donations and a foundation. He also frequently uses God language in his explanations of what makes him tick. And his English, accent and vocabulary, is very impressive
If there is a villain in this drama to Senna’s hero, it is his French partner and rival, Alain Prost, who is painted as an antagonistic grouch, but who still is a member of the Senna Trust Board. There are references to Nigel Mansell and Michael Schumacher and there are views of tragic accidents and some deaths. Senna is shown as being concerned about safety, arguing against the president of the sport’s governing body for better conditions on the track. After his death, his doctor friend Sid Watkins was appointed to improve health and safety standards in the sport and there has not been a death since.
This means that audiences will take out of the film what interests them. Some will look at the racing footage. Others will be impressed with the portrait of Senna himself. Others will be intrigued by the competitiveness and the sport politics. Senna does provide enough material for all these interests.
TUCKER AND DALE VS EVIL
(US, 2011, d. Eli Craig)
If you look at the ads, this film looks like yet another of those ‘Friday 13th young people being sliced and diced’ movie or a variation on Texas Chain Saw Massacres. In fact, it is, but not in the way we might have been expecting. This is a parody and quite a funny one.
The usual group go out into the wilds for one of those spring break vacations. They are shown as pot smokers, drinkers and open about sex and relationships. At a gas station, they encounter Tucker and Dale who look like inbred hillbillies but who are actually two ordinary, friendly men going to repair a holiday house. The students have obviously seen too many horror movies and immediately misunderstand a shy approach by Dale, misinterpret everything that follows, and determine that they have to defend themselves at all costs against these monsters.
We get to know Tucker and Dale and like them, especially poor old Dale (Tyler Labine who is the lab assistant in The Rise of the Planet of the Apes) who looks large and oafish but who is very kindly at heart.
Perhaps it is a one note joke, but it is played well with a nice attention to detail even for preposterous deaths. When Tucker and Dale save a sympathetic psychology student from a river, the rest think she has been abducted and fear the worst. This begins a number of attacks where the students die one after the other in their foolhardy attempts at rescue, jokingly bizarre. It all mounts up as one of the students has a past that motivates him to vengeance (but is shocked to learn what really is his deranged past). At one stage, he is persuaded by the psychology student that she can mediate between him and Dale and the film goes into a tongue-in-cheek counselling session.
Fans who take Friday 13th etc seriously might be shocked at the mockery of the conventions of the genre. Those who have avoided this kind of film may not see the jokes at all and find the deaths more than off-putting. But, those who have found the increasing number of slasher films becoming more pointless as well as gory will enjoy a film that is well-written and funny enough to remind us of how absurd so many of these movies are.
(US, 2011, d. Thomas Mc Carthy)
You may have seen Thomas Mc Carthy’s two previous films, The Station Agent and The Visitor, both well worth seeing for their drama and their sense of humanity. These qualities are present in Win Win, but there is also more humour.
Paul Giamatti is a versatile actor and has a potentially lugubrious face (used to great advantage in Barney’s Version and Sideways). He gets plenty of opportunity to use it here. He is Mike, a family man with a sensible and loving wife (Amy Ryan), a lawyer with a partner (Jeffrey Tambor at his best), whose practice is in need of clients. Mike and his partner also coach junior wrestling in the town. His prospects and his debts don’t look good. He also has a good friend (Bobby Cannavale) who loves wrestling but is no good at it and who is preoccupied with his wife’s seeing another man.
Two complications arise. One of his clients, a wealthy man, Leo (Burt Young), is about to be declared incompetent to manage his affairs. Mike decides to take on the role of guardian and receive a large stipend but, after promising Leo that he does not have to be put in a home, Mike does place him into an institution. Then Leo’s grandson turns up and Mike and his wife feel that it is the right thing to take the boy, Kyle, into their home. Mike enrols him at school where Kyle makes friends and invites him to the wrestling club not realising that Kyle has been a junior champion. Things brighten up considerably until Kyle’s mother (Melanie Lynskey), in drug recovery, alienated from her father for many years but sensing inheritance money in his will, comes to take Kyle home.
And then the truth about Leo and the institution come out. The latter part of the film involves us in the moral and legal tangles and Mike’s trying to rehabilitate himself, with his wife’s clear-sighted support.
The young man who portrays Kyle, Alex Sheffer, had never acted before but, aged 17, won the New Jersey State wrestling title in 2010. He really doesn’t act. However, his straight, almost deadpan, delivery of his lines, actually creates his character very well. A straightforward young man, no pretentions, very direct in what he thinks and believes. His performance, balanced with that of Paul Giamatti, make for serious and humorous drama.
Mc Carthy’s films explore aspects of human nature, the better sides of human nature (even when there is a need to be honest about shortcomings and failures and the need for some change of heart and recompense) and, really, what it is to be a decent human being.
(US, 2011, d. Lucky McKee)
This is a disturbing film, not for audiences who do not want to be disturbed. And, it is disturbing on several levels.
The film opens quite surreastically. A woman in the wild is glimpsed. A baby is glimpsed. There are sounds of barking and baying of animals. Images merge into one another for several minutes. When the title comes up, there is a rapid transition to a technicoloured middle American world around a swimming pool, where families are gathered and enjoying a meal and get-together. Chris, the father, seems very genial, though he tends to commands everyone, especially his compliant wife, Belle, to obey his orders and whims. His teenage daughter looks depressed and solitary. His early adolescent son shoots basketballs. There is also a little daughter. Chris is a local lawyer who tries to help people, especially an elderly lady who wants to sell the pool. The contrast between the family and the wild woman is immense.
Chris is also a hunter, sights the woman, goes home to alter the cellar for her and then goes to net her. He installs her, roped and bound, and invites the family to meet his trophy whom he intends to civilise.
The film is a critique of the patriarchal American family, nuclear, not in the family that stays together sense, but more in the potentially explosive sense.
Sequences veer between the ‘normal’ which get less normal as the film progresses showing the feeding, washing and abusing of the captured woman. She is both desperate and vengeful while being humiliated.
Gradually, in school scenes, playground scenes, meals at home and chores around the house, the unease becomes palpable, the tyranny of the father, his blandly charming exterior contrasting with his demands, the meekly submissive housewife, the situation of the daughter and the horrible spectacle of the boy, encouraged by his father, becoming more and more like him. Eventually, the explosion happens with the visit of a concerned teacher. At this stage, violence in a bloody and gory struggle may become too much for some audiences who have been following the drama with interest. But, that is what the film is trying to say, that the polite and even religious and civic veneer will crack, the centre cannot hold and more violence than anticipated will erupt.
By the end, the audience is well aware that this is a film targeting misogyny as the father’s behaviour and attitude’s become more extreme.
Small-budget, with a range of popular songs accompanying the action (the sound seems to clash with the action, the lyrics making comment on it), the film is based on a novel by the director and writer, Jack Ketchum. It is a stand-alone sequel to his film Offspring. He also wrote Red, which Lucky Mc Kee directed, and the torture story, The Girl Next Door. Some commentators have dismissed The Woman as ugly trash. It is often ugly, but the makers and performers are trying to communicate something more serious than trash.