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- SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS, MARCH 2006, SUPPLEMENT
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SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS, JANUARY 2006
This is a service of the SIGNIS website, presenting reviews by Peter Malone of films that have been screening during the previous month.
BIG MOMMA’S HOUSE 2
BREAKFAST ON PLUTO
FUN WITH DICK AND JANE
MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA
BIG MOMMA’S HOUSE 2 (US, 2006, d. John Whitesell)
One is tempted to check whether the director’s name is real or not. After all, this is a Martin Lawrence comedy and, in the US, it has to be a ‘black sell’ rather than a ‘white sell’.
Obviously, a lot of people enjoy Martin Lawrence comedies. He is clearly popular when he teams with Will Smith in Bad Boys movies. And, for ten years, he has been making a lot of come and go, hit and miss, comedies. Big Momma’s House in which he was a detective doing a Mrs Doubtfire was one if his more successful outings. Success suggests a franchise, a franchise means a sequel and here it is.
Lawrence is once again detective Malcolm Turner but is on desk duty as his wife is expecting. But, of course, he is itching to get on a case again - and applies for a nanny’s job as Big Momma. That gives him the opportunity to do a lot of mugging as the oversized Momma, to be the substitute parent figure for neglected and pressurised kids and to do a whole lot of gymnastics dressed (and undressed) as Big Momma.
The plot involves computer and terrorism conspiracies, murder and blackmail, abduction. But, this is more of a PG show, so it is all basically in good fun. The plot lines make huge assumptions and leaps that defy a realistic interpretation - but a realistic interpretation is to miss the point of a cheerful, time-passing entertainment.
BREAKFAST ON PLUTO (Ireland, 2005, d. Neil Jordan)
This is as unpredictable film as you will find for a long time. It means that you are not quite sure of whether you are enjoying it or not because you don’t recognise too many signposts along the way to indicate what the film is doing or where it is going. Which, of course, is all to the good - and means that you have to give some more thought to what you have seen than what you might normally do.
One signpost, however, is that the film is based on a novel by Patrick McCabe who has co-written the screenplay. His Butcher Boy took us into some weird realms: both ordinary life in a village but also violence and apparitions of the Virgin Mary. In Ireland. That’s another signpost. This is an Irish story with a sense of the fantastic, the offbeat comedy and a touch of blarney, the Catholic church and moral teaching and sex.
But the main signpost is that the film has been co-written and directed by Neil Jordan. For over twenty years, Jordan has offered many very different portraits of Irish life (Angel, The Miracle, Butcher Boy) as well as delving into the world of fantasy and mythologies (Company of Wolves, Interview with the Vampire, In Dreams). His versatility can be seen from the fact that he made Michael Collins, Mona Lisa, The End of the Affair. But, reviewers will point to his Oscar-winning (for screenplay) The Crying Game for a reference here with its story of a transvestite.
First of all, the film is comic in tone. The hero (who might preferred to be referred to as heroine) narrates the story in a broguishly roguish kind of way. Then there are the two robins who feature early in the film, pecking into the tops of milk bottles and making chirpy comments along the way (with sub-titles!!). The narrative is also split up into almost forty mini-chapters with humorous and ironic titles coming up on screen.
This the story of Patrick, abandoned by his mother at the presbytery door in 1956, who is fostered by a demanding mother, finds that he prefers dressing and acting like a girl and takes the name Kitten, and embarks on the life of a transvestite in London in the 1970s. That plot outline should be enough to raise curiosity.
But, there is so much more than that. Not only is it a humane story of a very confused young man who feels alienated from family and community, it moves into the area of Irish troubles and terrorism and brutal police interrogations.
When a policeman takes an interest in Kitten, he helps her/him to move into a Soho prostitute co-op where he appears in peep-show booths - which offers a telling sequence where, in a parallel to the confessional, his father tells him how to find his mother. The film ends with strong feeling but avoiding sentimentality.
Cameos from Brendan Gleeson, Ian Hart and Stephen Rea and the earnest presence of Liam Neeson as the parish priest. But it is Cillian Murphy (Girl With a Pearl Earring, Red Eye, Batman Begins) who sustains the film with a fully committed performance as Patrick.
Definitely one for children to review to tell us whether it is funny, whether they liked the story, whether they liked little Chicken Little, his father and the other characters in the town. They would have to be film buffs to tell us whether they appreciated the references to science fiction movies and parodies of Close Encounters and, especially for 2005, The War of the Worlds.
While the film is geared to children, it is one of those raucous entertainments with a lot of shouting, a lot of misunderstandings as well as expecting children to be more knowing in their behaviour, more than a touch worldly-wise, in their response to characters rather than respond with a more child-like simplicity and delight.
For a while, it looks like a small domestic comedy with poor Chicken Little mocked by everyone and judged badly by his father when he makes a fuss and causes disaster claiming that a piece of the sky has fallen. However, he makes good in a heroic run in a baseball match.
But, then come the aliens!! And the tone of the film changes considerably.
This reviewer was reminded of Lilo and Stitch, another Disney animation that eluded his wavelength but was popular with the children.
DERAILED (US, 2005, d. Mikael Hafstrom)
For about twenty minutes, one can’t help thinking that we seen this all before: nice family, tensions, husband with a roving eye, the beginning of an affair. From that moment on, the screenplay twists and turns in an entertainingly tantalising way. That means it is not fair to say too much more about the plot - a multiplex thriller that achieves what it sets out to do.
The film has interesting credentials. While the setting is Chicago, much of the film was made in a London studio. Clive Owen has a role that suits him. He is often taciturn and unsmiling in his films and while, on the whole he is like that here, he has many good reasons for not smiling. The object of his wayward affection and behaviour is Jennifer Aniston acting against her Friends type - and quite credibly in view of plot developments. French star, Vincent Cassell, is frighteningly persuasive as a thug on the loose in Chicago, mostly brutal and repellent but able to turn on charm when it suits him. The screenplay, from a novel by James Siegel, has been written by Australia Stuart Beattie who impressed in 2004 with his writing of Collateral.
If you are looking for a thriller with twists and with moral dilemmas about a man who makes a terrible mistake with consequences for his family and friends that make him desperate, try this. What would we do?
FUN WITH DICK AND JANE (US, 2005, d. Dean Parisot)
Perhaps some readers used the Fun with Dick and Jane books as texts for learning how to read. The credits of this comedy, use the books’ illustrations style to introduce the father, Dick, the mother, Jane, their young son and the family dog. This is a typical family unit, comfortable, happy and, as far as the future is concerned, prosperous.
How wrong they are!
The present screenplay is based on one written for the 1976 film with George Segal and Jane Fonda. As I look at notes I made for the review at that time, I am surprised just how apt they are for this 2005 movie. Have things not improved over thirty years? 1976 was the immediate post-Watergate era and the aftermath of the resignation of President Nixon. Recession mixed with corporate fraud (as with vice-president Agnew) made headlines then. This time, we see President Bush making speeches on prosperity. The film finishes with satiric comments on Enron and other companies whose disgraced executives are now in court.
It is best to point out that the theme of Fun with Dick and Jane is unemployment amongst the middle classes and how they cope and fail to cope with the consequences. This is a particularly American problem. Audiences in Africa and parts of Asia may not be so interested in Dick and Jane and their plight. They have far more important and deeper problems to deal with.
However, for those of us in western cultures, we know that retrenchment, restructuring and downsizing are a significant part of our experience. My past notes refer to the ‘nouveau poor’.
The trouble is that Dick is an enthusiastic and effective worker. It is just that he has been chosen as the fall-guy for corporate crooks to get away with huge profits as their company goes bankrupt - and he is trapped on a typical TV finance interview trying to put on a brave face while being shocked at discovering what has happened. He has just persuaded Jane to give up her travel agent job to spend more time with their son.
The black comedy shows them trying to salvage their dignity and their possessions. Then it shows Dick’s failed attempts to find a job. Finally, they are so desperate that Dick and Jane set out on a series of armed robberies to make ends meet and regain their status.
Some of these episodes - holding moral judgment in abeyance until we see how they emerge from these activities - are quite funny, especially when Dick is arrested and deported with Mexican illegals and when Dick’s robberies go wrong and he meets a friend and helps an old lady with her groceries to her car.
Since Jim Carrey is the star, we can expect some broad comedy and some of his mugging and impersonations - a little of which can go a long way. He is matched very well by Tea Leoni as Jane.
Alec Baldwin is the creepy criminal executive who offers smooth rationalisations and jocose television answers. Richard Jenkins is very good as the vice president of the company who finally collaborates with Dick and Jane to rectify the situation and move the goings-on to a moral high ground - a nice trick to get back the ill-gotten gains and try to see justice done.
Fun with Dick and Jane is not a comedy masterpiece. Rather, it is a piece of popular entertainment that reaches the widest audience (in American, European and G8 societies) and by satire and funny situations, not realism, remind us that there are greedy exploiters who manipulate world finances and who have no scruples in easily permitting the family in the street to be their victims.
GET RICH OR DIE TRYIN’ (US, 2005, d. Jim Sheridan)
The title comes from the very successful hip hop album by rapper 50 Cents (aka Curtis Jackson). It has sold 12,000,000 copes. 50 Cents has had enormous subsequent success in the record world. For potential audiences who did not know these facts, it might be an indication that this film is not for them. It is for the fans, for those who know something about the world that Curtis Jackson emerged from, who know the black ghettoes, the drug-dealing and the guns, the violence and killings. It is also the world of gangsters who operate in the world of song and records (which came to the surface in the mid-1990s with the killing of singer-actor, Tupac Shakur). This has been documented in the arresting and alarming documentary which had worldwide release, Biggie and Tupac, which highlighted the hip-hop/rap rivalry between gangsters on the East coast and the west and the murder of Tupac and Biggie Smalls.
One might ask what Irish director Jim Sheridan is doing, making a film on this theme and with this style. After all, he directed My Left Foot, The Field, In the Name of the Father and In America. Sheridan claims that he is a fan of hip hop and is intrigued by this world. As a chronicler of groups on the margin, he is ready for this film and brings some flash and fire to it.
This is the world of Boyz ‘n the Hood only more so. This is the South Bronx from the 80s to the present. And it is the world that Curtis Jackson grew up in. He says that many of the incidents in the narrative are similar enough to what he experienced. (Screenwriter Tim Winter was hired to create the screenplay because he was, amongst other shows, a writer for The Sopranos.)
For many outsiders, this is an alien world. On the one hand, it can be a world of despair. Young African Americans absorb the ethos and are trapped. They have their moments of swagger. They can have a time of power and of easy money with drug deals. But, while they can live by gang codes, there are always power struggles and betrayals which lead to prison or death (or both). This is not a nice world - it would be comfortable to ignore it, even deny that it exists but it is a challenge to American society and to the African American neighbourhoods.
The film opens with a robbery, blacks trying to rip off Colombians, and Marcus (50 Cent’s character) being shot to death. His life passes before his and our eyes - back to his mother, the mystery of his father’s identity, his loving grandparents, his love for music, his love for Charlene, his mother’s brutal murder, his decision to be a dealer, the gang rivalry, vengeance killings, his imprisonment and befriending of Bama (Terrence Howard) who becomes his manager.
Interestingly the tagline is “Inside every man is the power to choose”. This means that the stance of the film is that, despite the harsh world, its brutality and exploitation, redemption is possible.
GRIZZLY MAN (US, 2005, d. Werner Herzog)
After watching this documentary, I was surprised to see how enthusiastic quotes on the advertising and in the press notes emphasised its impact as a nature documentary. Yes, there are many extraordinary scenes and some unique footage of grizzly bears captured in the Alaskan national parks and audiences who enjoy this kind of film or television program (especially on the Discovery Channel which has co-produced Grizzly Man).
But, audiences may well leave the cinema with quite a different impression. The Grizzly Man is Timothy Treadwell, an American who spent thirteen summers with the grizzlies, who saw himself as their protector against poachers and negligent authorities, who toured schools and became a media celebrity informing the public about the bears.
Director Werner Herzog is one of the great mavericks of cinema. For more than forty years he has made a succession of fictions and documentaries that explore eccentricity, ego, obsessions and madness. Often with a rough and ready style, he has made his audiences look quite differently at the world and people on the margin. So, it is no surprise to find him intrigued by the life and death of Timothy Treadwell.
Herzog does a constant voiceover commentary, investing himself and his perspective in the film and the portrait of Treadwell. What Herzog does is to lead us on a journey, observing and sharing Treadwell’s disintegration of personality. With footage from his many videos, with comments from friends and critics, Herzog empathises at first with Treadwell, then moves to a critique of his work and self-imposed mission. We discover a former alcoholic who took drugs, who invented an Australian background for himself (he was from Long Island) who broke the regulations about keeping distance from the grizzlies, who expressed his rage against civilisation with more and more disturbing intensity and exhibited traits of self-aggrandisement and delusions of grandeur.
We know from the outset that Timothy Treadwell and his companions were killed by a grizzle, so we are aware that we are contemplating a finished life and its meaning. His friends are loyal. Critics say that he did not understand how he could be altering the bears’ attitudes towards humans, that he personalised them in a way that did not correspond to their animal and hunting realities.
Herzog himself has shown some of these traits in his films: the megalomaniacs in Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo and the documentary about his stormy relationship with the star of these films, the manic Klaus Kinski, in My Special Fiend. Grizzly Man is a nature film, but it is also a psychiatric case-study.
LITTLE FISH (Australia, 2005, d. Rowan Wood)
Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving both won best performance awards for their roles in Little Fish at the Australian Film Institute awards in 2005. Cate Blanchett shows once again how she immerse herself completely in a role that is so different from her other roles. Hugo Weaving gives one of his best performances. Noni Hazlehurst, herself a winner of awards in the 1980s for Monkey Grip and Fran, was best supporting actress as Cate Blanchett’s mother.
Little Fish refers to ordinary people, little fish in the big pond that is Sydney. However, in their own lives, they have experienced failure and disappointment and how hard it is to make new starts.
In every contemporary big city, there is also a drug underworld and the many and ordinary addicts who keep the bosses in wealth, even luxury. Sam Neill portrays a particularly vengeful type of dealer who is wanting to retire and enjoy his comforts. He has a band of associates who double deal, betray friendships and confidences and become victims of their greed and their death wishes.
The film spends its time in the Sydney suburbs and the melting pot they have become, especially with the more recent arrivals from Asia and from Vietnam.
Perhaps Cate Blanchett is too strong a personality for the little fish she portrays (although she can do trashy characters as she did in The Shipping News). However, Hugo Weaving, rather unrecognisable in scruffy beard, draws audience compassion for the man of talent who has lost everything and preys upon those he loves for his dependency.
This is a grim slice of life, downbeat, and is directed by Rowan Wood who made the disturbing drama of a dominating criminal played by David Wenham in The Boys.
MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA (US, 2005, d. Rob Marshall)
This is a most beautiful film to watch. The colour photography by Australian Dion Beebe (who also shot director Rob Marshall’s Oscar-winning Chicago) is a continual delight. The lavish sets and costumes re-creating 1930s Japan are exquisitely shot, immersing the audience in this almost hermetically sealed world of the geishas which was to be suddenly destroyed by World War II.
Based on the novel by Arthur Golden, the screenplay by Robin Swicord (Little Women) takes us through the life of a young girl from a fishing village who is sold by her needy parents to the manager of a geisha house. The audience shares the apprehensions of this nine year old, her desperation, her entrapment in this world, her mistakes and working as a slave for the owner. When a kindly chairman of an electricity company buys her a strawberry ice, her life is changed and she submits to the geisha training and, under the tutelage of the most famous geisha in the town, she becomes her successor.
Life is never easy with her hard taskmasters but she also suffers the jealousy of the passionate and cruel geisha who is doomed to quick success and self-destruction.
The screenplay explains that geishas are not courtesans or wives, that they do not sell their bodies (although there is a custom for a patron to purchase the young geisha’s virginity) but that they are works of art in life with their manners, conversation skills, graceful movement, song and elegant dance.
Audiences do hear random broadcasts on the soundtrack about Hitler and Germany but there is little to indicate reasons for Japan’s entry into the war, although the chairman and his associate have fought in Manchuria. When the war does come, it means the end of the geisha world, the world of entertainment for men in high places, men in arranged marriages who rely on the geishas for company and entertainment.
The portrait of the occupying Americans at the end of the war is quite jolting, a crass group of liberators whose manners, jitterbugging and crude touristic commercialism is in rude contrast to the beauty and elegance of the geisha world.
The cast is excellent with three of China’s leading actresses most persuasive as the leads. Zhang Yiyi (Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Crouching Dragon Hidden Tiger) is a charming and vulnerable lead, Sayuri. Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Dragon) is the dignified Mameha, the geisha who coaches Sayuri. Gong Li (who made such an impact in such 90s films as Raise the Red Lantern, The Story of Qui Ju) chews the scenery as the spiteful Hatsumomo.
An intelligent, visual and historical immersion in a different world.
NORTH COUNTRY (US, 2005, d. Niki Caro)
A very impressive and moving film. Interesting to note that the US Bishops Conference reviewer listed it in the top ten films of 2006. Sad to say, the film was not well received at the box-office there. Perhaps its truths were too hard-hitting. It is to be hoped that it will succeed more in other countries.
The church’s social teaching always puts its initial accent on the dignity of the human person. This is the first principle in the Vatican’s recently published Compendium of Social Teaching. One of the key contemporary elements in this teaching is respect for woman, given the history of domestic and sexual abuse as well as harassment in the workplace. These are the themes of North Country.
The screenplay is written by a man, Michael Seitzman, but the film has been directed powerfully and perceptively by a woman, New Zealander, Niki Caro. Her previous film, Whale Rider, about a young Maori girl is worth seeking out for those who have not seen it. North Country also boasts an impressive cast of women, including three Oscar winners, Charlize Theron as Josie, the strong woman who confronts her boorish macho co-workers, Frances McDormand as her friend and union representative, and Sissy Spacek as her mother. There are also fine performances by the men: Woody Harrelson as a lawyer, Sean Bean as a sensitive former miner and Richard Jenkins as Theron’s non-comprehending father.
The narrative here is based on actual events in the state of Minnesota in the 1980s. The epilogue notes that while the women received modest compensation for their treatment at the iron mine, the verdict in their favour led to reforms worldwide in legislation about the employment of women and their conditions.
Not that the film is simply a moralising look at an abusive situation. While it does have a documentary feel with detailed vistas of the rugged landscapes and close-up sequences of work in the mine, it is still a story that audiences can identify with - and has characters that really stir all kinds of emotions.
Josie is a single mother with two children who leaves her brutal husband, returns home and finds a tough job, cleaning, driving, doing repairs in the huge local mine. The men resent the woman’s presence and make life difficult by insults, crass innuendo and more obvious advances, and the crudest of treatment. Management, forced by law to employ women, do nothing to better the situations. When it becomes too much, Josie takes action. The other women don’t want to lose their jobs and are afraid. Her father sides with the men. Management act deviously.
What makes the film so affecting is Josie’s background story, her son’s resentment at the mystery of his father’s identity (which proves a pivotal plot development during the court case), her mother’s quiet care, her father’s almost disowning her, her union friend’s kindness as well as her suffering a debilitating disease. There is no lack of plot.
For those of us who have comfortable lives, this is a necessary immersion in a tough and harsh world where ordinary people try to manage, often without training and skills that will help them manage. Their workplace and treatment often belittles them but they have no way out if they want to earn enough to support their families. This has repercussions, of course, on family tensions, straining of relationships which will lead to damaging consequences.
Josie may have little education and, it is revealed, is more of a victim than we at first realise. But, she takes a stand and appeals for solidarity. There is a strong scene towards the end when she goes to a union meeting where the men jeer and the women are silent. She speaks but, more powerfully and emotionally, her father speaks in support of her. That prepares us for the courts where she will prevail.
PRIME (US, 2005, d. Ben Younger)
Prime could be described as a romantic comedy with edge. In fact, there are several edges.
The cultural edge is that this is a New York Jewish story. While the central character, fashion model, Rafi (Uma Thurman), is not Jewish, she begins a relationship with a young artist, David (Bryan Greenberg) who is Jewish (but is not as deeply involved in and understanding of his traditions as his parents). The other edge has to do with age. He is 23. She is 37.
As regards the romantic comedy, the style is modern, two people falling in love regardless of what others think and, sometimes, regardless of the consequences. They feel that the difference of fourteen years is nothing. Rafi, a recent divorcee, feels that David fulfils all her emotional needs and her sexual needs. David is entranced by this sophisticated woman and that she could love him. Needless to say, romance has to face up to reality, especially the differences in intellectual life (computer games versus conversation, for example) and general maturing experience. As such, Prime is a light and light-hearted look at characters experiencing these dilemmas.
But, back to the Jewish theme. David’s mother (Meryl Streep looking both frumpish and glamorous) is Rafi’s psychiatrist. She is wholly affirming of Rafi, especially encouraging her in the new relationship - until...! David is her son and Rafi is not what she wants for him. Rafi is not Jewish. She is too old. This leads the film on to questions of confidentiality, what happens when therapists are involved emotionally in their clients’ lives and just how manipulating some mothers can be.
Uma Thurman brings glamour and presence to her role. Meryl Streep makes the most of her double-takes and maternal anguish. Ultimately, this can be also described as a bittersweet comedy - which asks its audience to appreciate how much people relish the present moment but that, finally, life requires decisions, courage and responsibility.
PROOF (US, 2005, d. John Madden)
Films about mathematics, especially at university level, are not the first titles that come to mind in wondering what would be most popular at the box-office.
However, during the 1980s, there was an interesting and challenging film about difficulties in schools in Hispanic East Los Angeles. The subject being taught was calculus. The film was Stand and Deliver with Edward James Olmos as a dedicated teacher who wanted to improve standards and possibilities in life for his students. It turned out to be quite popular.
More recently, a film about mathematics and the nature of intellectual genius won the Oscar for Best Film and was seen by millions. This was Ron Howard’s biography of Nobel Prize-winner, John Nash, memorably played by Russell Crowe. While there were many maths sequences, there was a great deal of plot beyond the maths. John Nash was diagnosed as schizophrenic. He lived part of his life in an interior world populated by espionage and code breakers as well as imaginary friends who dramatised other facets of his personality.
Proof is more in this vein.
It is based on a successful play by David Auburn which won awards on Broadway and was seen successfully around the world. In London, Gwyneth Paltrow played the leading character on the West End. Proof is more of a specialist film and it would not be expected to be big box-office, despite Gwyneth Paltrow bringing her theatre performance to the screen.
But that does not mean that Proof is not worth seeing - and sitting back for some sequences where the talk about proofs and theorems and equations and prime numbers is more than a bit beyond most of us.
It is probably more accurate to describe Proof as a film about genius and about madness. Films about the mind and the psyche are often fascinating explorations of human nature, strengths and weaknesses.
The central character is 27 year old Catherine Llewellyn (Paltrow) whose mathematics professor father, Robert, has just died. She is grieving since she has been caring for him for three years, giving up her studies and her ambitions to tend him. A brilliant scholar in Britain and then in the US, he has been suffering from forms of madness for years, working away diligently at his studies but producing only notebooks of gibberish.
Her older sister, Claire, turns up, a practical woman wanting to interfere and control under the guise of taking care of Catherine. A maths teacher, taught by her father, Hal Dobbs, also turns up. Ultimately (but not without some severe tests of trust), he provides an alternative for Catherine’s life. She herself is like her father, a maths genius, but afraid that she too will descend into madness. An elaborate 40 page proof is at the centre of the crisis and the question of who wrote it, Robert or Catherine.
The credentials on this production are impeccable. David Auburn has adapted his play with the assistance of screenwriter and director, Rebecca Miller (Personal Velocity, Ballad of Jack and Rose - and daughter of Arthur Miller). Director John Madden guided Gwyneth Paltrow to her Oscar in Shakespeare in Love.
Gwyneth Paltrow herself brings a subtle poignancy to her quiet performance, suggesting vulnerability as well as determination, showing devotion but also deep apprehensiveness about her own mental condition. Hope Davis, often acting in lesser known independent films, is completely convincing as the ever-talking, list-making and busy Claire. Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko, Jarhead, Brokeback Mountain) is sympathetic as the do-gooding Hal.
As Robert Llewellyn, Anthony Hopkins gives an assured performance, appearing at times in his daughter’s imagination, seen in a series of flashback which show his mental deterioration, his determination and his sad acceptance of his condition.
Proof is a specialist film but it is interesting and thoughtful.
This is not the kind of romantic comedy that one would automatically think of for a review in The Universe. Hollywood is forever turning out pleasant variations on the romantic theme and they simply come and go. At times Shopgirl seems like this but, by the end, we realise that there is some more depth this time.
This can be attributed to Steve Martin. Over the decades, moviegoers have become used to him as a screen comedian. At his best, especially in the 1980s, he was intelligent and funny in such films as All of Me, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid and Roxanne. At his worst, he just goes in for some lazy and silly mugging, something he has been doing too much of recently with the two Cheaper by the Dozen films (which bear little resemblance to the classics of the 1950s that older audiences probably cherish). .
The mention of Roxanne reminds some audiences that Martin started his career as a writer, especially for television comic performers. He wrote the screenplay for Roxanne, a modern version of Cyrano de Bergerac where Martin’s performance showed he could do pathos as well as funny. Since then he has written plays and some novellas. Which brings us back to Shopgirl. He has written the screenplay for this film based on his novella.
Shopgirl has a resoundingly mundane ring about it. And that is what Martin intended. The central character, played appealingly by Claire Danes, is Mirabelle (not such a shopgirl name). She has come from a perfectly ordinary family in Massachusetts to make her way in Los Angeles. We find her as a salesgirl in the gloves department in Sacks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills - of course, Sacks is not a perfectly ordinary store, but watching her at work, we find she spends most of her time simply looking at customers passing by.
She has found a small apartment, has made a few friends, but there is nothing special about her life. She does meet an eccentric, rather bizarre young man, Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman) and, out of loneliness, has an on-and-off relationship with him.
The point of the film, however, becomes clear when a wealthy and ageing businessman, Ray (Steve Martin himself) buys a pair of gloves that she recommends and send them to her. He invites her to dinner... and so it goes on. She is gradually drawn into the relationship and comes to depend on him. So far, so familiar, perhaps.
However, we are given a glimpse of the man talking to his therapist and hear him declare that he is really just amusing himself with the affair, that he is incapable of communicating real feelings and has a fear of commitment. This makes the audience complicit in what happens to Mirabelle. She might want to change him, but she won’t be able to.
‘Bittersweet’ is the usual word used to describe this king of overwhelming experience for the girl and even for the man who ultimately will let her down.
Two things make this film different and worth looking at and discussing.
First is that Mirabelle had urged the scruffy Jeremy, almost absent-mindedly, to go out into the world and achieve something. Surprisingly he does (and scrubs up better than we could imagine). Second is the more significant. We see the aftermath of the break-up. We are given time to reflect on what has happened. The impulses, the use of others, the mistakes, the hurt and to see people admitting and learning by their mistakes and trying to build a new life in the light of what they have learnt. This means that Shopgirl is a moral fable as well as a romantic comedy.
It is to the credit of Steve Martin (who gives himself a quite unsympathetic role) that he offers to the wide audience a reflective comedy on today’s moral dilemmas.
STAY (US, 2005, d. Marc Forster)
Director Marc Forster came to world attention with his sombre drama Monster’s Ball for which Halle Berry won the Best Actress Oscar. This was tough and frank drama. He surprised his fans by making a completely different film next - the story of J.M.Barrie, Finding Neverland, with Johnny Depp. It was a charming and thoughtful film, an excursion into early 20th century British sensibility. Now, Stay, is something completely different.
However, it may be too difficult in terms of plot clarity and issues to win the support that his previous films have gained.
It is probably best described as a ‘supernatural thriller’, though, in reality, there is not so much supernatural in it. Is it a ghost story? Is it a story of psychological possession? Is it a story of therapy - and its failure? Is it a kind of purgatorial story of atonement and expiation? Or all of the above? Maybe the best advice is to sit back and be absorbed - but my guess is that many will be tempted simply to give up and tune out.
Stay opens with a car accident and ends with another death on the Brooklyn Bridge. Ryan Gosling portrays a mysterious young man seen walking from the accident - and then his face is superimposed on that of Ewan McGregor. McGregor is a psychologist, living with an artist (Naomi Watts) whom he has saved from a suicide attempt. Suicide becomes one of the themes as the young man lets his therapist know that he plans to kill himself: Saturday, midnight, the Brooklyn Bridge.
What transpires before that is the random appearance and disappearance of the young man, the psychiatrist’s attempts to find him and save him as well as encounters with a blind professor friend (Bob Hoskins) whom the young man claims is his father, with the man’s mother (who is supposed to be dead) and a burnt-out therapist. At times McGregor is mistaken for the young man. Those who know the young man do not recognise him.
So, is this New York a kind of hell (as the young man suggests) is it a place of making an account of one’s life, a purgatory? The end and the gathering of the people in the man’s life suggests the latter. But...?
UNDERWORLD EVOLUTION (US, 2005, d. Len Wiseman)
At the end of this episode in the battle between vampires and lycans (wolf-creatures), the warrior-heroine Serena, instead of rejoicing that enemies have been destroyed and there is a possibility of peace, ominously suggests that there are dark times ahead. A signal that there will be a further film in the series.
The first Underworld was a surprising hit. Not that it was easy to follow the dark history of the emergence in 13th century Central Europe of the conflict between the two races who could live only in the darkness of an underworld, not visible to ordinary mortals. (The present episode has an introductory explanation of the origins, a reminder of who the main characters were, the nature of their betrayals and their enmities and cruelty, as well as frequently flashback glimpses of scenes from the first film - for which I was thankful, enabling me to follow this one better.)
A prologue set in 1202 takes us back to the vampires conquering the lycans, both descended from twin brothers who were bitten by bat and wolf respectively. Betrayed by their ally (Bill Nighy who was seen to do all this in the first film), the wolf brother is condemned to eternal imprisonment. The other wants to develop a more powerful creature (who is vampiric but who flies with huge wings that can pinion the enemy - which is demonstrated many times). Derek Jacobi turns up as their father.
In the meantime, Serena, played by Kate Beckinsale in a black leather outfit, and the hybrid Michael, the rather underwhelming Scott Speedman, are on a mission to save the vampire race from the mad machinating twin.
Part of the intrigue of the Underworld films is that the characters are also immersed in the contemporary world of scientific experimentation - as well as a helicopter climax.
This re-imagining of the horror genres has its exciting moments but also has its very gory moments which gain it a more restrictive rating.
ZATHURA (US, 2005, d. Jon Favreau)
As a name for a film, Zathura does not give much away. They have added an extra, ‘A Space Adventure’.
Sometimes, it is very hard for adults, especially those who are not accompanying children to the cinema, to sit through some of the action movies designed for the young audience. Many more than usual will be able to enjoy Zathura. But, as with so many children’s films (from Nanny McPhee to Narnia), we start with children behaving badly. And, not only badly but obnoxiously - bickering constantly and at full screech. However, we know that they are going to be taught a lesson and that they will be better by the end of the film.
In Zathura, the bickering borders on the incessant and even the lost astronaut (later explanations of how he gets into the picture) has to scold the two brothers, one six and one ten, who are at the centre of this adventure. They have a fourteen year old sister who usually communicates with them at the level of ‘shut up’. But, she is asleep or in the bathroom for a lot of the film.
So, what on earth (or in space) is Zathura? It is a board game which the two brothers (Josh Hutcherson as Walter and Jonah Bobo as Danny) find on a Saturday afternoon while their father (Tim Robbins) is at a meeting. They not only play it, they live it.
Out into space they go, floating in their house. At first, it is enjoyable as they wind the key which will wind the machine to tell them how many moves they make and produces a card which says what action will be next. When the Zorgons attack, absolute mayhem results with the house smashed and trashed. The only way to get back home is by playing. The lost astronaut (Dax Shepard), mentioned before, turns up and tries his best to help.
Actually, there is quite a moral in the character of the astronaut and his identity which leads to the boys learning their lesson and a more fraternal future. Directed by actor Jon Favreau, who entertained us with Elf.