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- SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS, MARCH 2006, SUPPLEMENT
- SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS, MARCH 2006
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- SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS, JANUARY 2006
SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS, MARCH 2006, SUPPLEMENT
This is a service of the SIGNIS website, presenting reviews by Peter Malone of films that have been screening during the previous month.
THE BIG WHITE (US, 2005, d. Mark Mylod)
Not easy to categorise this film. It can be seen as a comedy - though the shade is black. It can be seen as a scam and con drama. It can be seen as a murder thriller. And combinations thereof!
The setting is Alaska in winter, so plenty of snow and white. Robin Williams, much more restrained than in the past, is a travel agent with dreams of going on a trip with Waikiki airlines, but short of money. His main preoccupation is caring for the wife he deeply loves who is afflicted with Tourette’s Syndrome (and she does let loose with it!). She is played with verve by Holly Hunter. The travel agent wants to cash in an insurance policy on his brother who disappeared five years earlier. The smart insurance honcho, Giovanni Ribisi, whose girlfriend, Alison Lohman, runs a psychic phone advisory service from home - which both the agent and his wife use - is able to deny the claim which requires seven years to have passed before a payout is possible.
Enter a dead body - into a dumpster outside the travel agency. There have been black comedies about shifting corpses around like Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry and the Weekend at Bernie films. This one will be added to the list. Travel agent, Tourette wife, insurance agent wanting promotion, sympathetic psychic, two emotionally involved hit men - and plot complications. Into which comes the long-lost brother who has read about his death in the papers. He is played, even over-played, by Woody Harrelson as the wild man from anywhere.
The screenplay shifts moods regularly, almost as regularly as someone is tied up or beaten up or even shot. There is both comedy and pathos. Williams and Hunter bring feeling to their roles. Ribisi does his bewildered innocent turn again. No major reason to see it but, on the other hand, it is not bad.
DERECHO DE FAMILIA (FAMILY LAW) (Argentina, 2006, d. Daniel Burman)
This is a very positive film indeed, very enjoyable, very entertaining.
Daniel Burman brings Argentinian society to life - with a special angle since his family is Jewish and migrated to Argentina at the end of World War II. Family Law is somewhat autobiographical - and the hero’s little boy is played, charmingly and naturalistically, by Burman’s own son.
Family Law sounds far too legal and cold a title for this film. It opens with the central figure, a fairly buttoned-up type (literally since he even wears his suit and tie sometimes to bed) who lectures, quite interestingly in law and justice at the university. He is talking, not about himself, but his father’s daily routine in life and in his legal practice. He is in admiration of his father - and the audience grows in sharing this admiration. His father is a good man.
The hero himself is not such a bad man either, but overshadowed in his own mind and behaviour by this father. He marries, has a little boy, continues his work but fails to understand so much of his father’s life and attitudes, despite his father’s encouraging him to do so, until it is too late. Daniel Hendler won a Silver Bear in Berlin for Burman’s previous film. He is completely credible here as is Arturo Goetz as the father.
Burman is showing three generations of a family, relationships between fathers and sons. There are tensions and misunderstandings but also love and hope. Winner of the SIGNIS award in Mar del Plata, 2006.
THE ELEMENTARY PARTICLES (Germany, 2006, d. Oskar Roehler)
Writer-director, Oskar Roehler, has adapted a celebrated European novel by French writer, Michel Houellebecq. Dramatic, philosophical, controversial in its portrayal of intimate behaviour, the novel is one of those that commentators say defies adaptation for the screen. Many forget that a film is only a version and an interpretation of a novel and demand that the film replicate the novel. This is not possible and the film must be judged accordingly.
The Elementary Particles is an impressive film, wide in its philosophical, psychological and social scope. It is very well acted and won for its star, Moritz Bleibtreu (Run, Lola, Rau, The Experiment, Munich) the acting award at the 2006 Berlin Film Festival.
He and Christian Ulman portray two half-brothers who grew up not knowing that the other existed. Their mother was a free spirit who wafted off to India, blowing into their lives only now and again. Michael (Ulman) is a mathematician, examining the particles of life and attempting formulae that will clone individuals - and eliminate the need for sex, something that plays very little part in his private life. On the other hand, Bruno (Bleibtreu) is sex-obsessed. He is unhappily married, though a father. He makes advances on his literature students, visits brothels and finally goes to a holiday camp which could be politely described as permissive.
Each man has an important encounter with a woman, Bruno with a divorcee who could become the love of his life and transform him, Michael with the woman who, as a girl, was in love with him. Their lives and their tragedies run in parallel. They come together as their mother is dying and later because of further illnesses.
In one sense, the film is quite pessimistic (though there is a verbal postscript describing what happened to the two men in future decades), though there is an attempt at a romantic touch at the end which looks calm and sweet but is really sad.
The characters are always interesting even when profoundly irritating or annoying, offering the audience jolts by their behaviour, challenges by their faith and lack of faith, and hope that there are possibilities for some redemption.
DER FREIE WILLE (THE FREE WILL) (Germany, 2006, d. Matthias Glasner)
The film opens with a man in his 20s gazing out to a cold sea on a bleak beach, wind blowing. Another of those European tales of existential angst. And this opening is not misleading. This is a 165 minutes close-up of a man who is minimally sympathetic, of his obsessions, his angers, his pathology, his attempts to come to terms with himself and his failure. The large philosophical question is: has this man free will for his actions and his moral decisions or is he programmed or is he continually impeded by his fragile and disturbed mental states. Can he be redeemed?
This being a German film, there are no obvious or, especially, happy answers.
Not everyone will be able to watch this film in all its detail. After a visceral scene of eruptive anger, Theo (Jurgen Vogel) rapes a woman on the beach, more viciously than we really would like to see. He is arrested and serves a gaol sentence. He has taken medication to control his libido and has been allowed to go off it. Is it possible for him to change his basic drives? Is it possible to control them?
Free Will keeps us in Theo’s company for almost three hours. He is certainly not a person we would like to be acquainted with. Yet, the film asks us to be with him, to understand as best we can, to wonder what can be done. As with paedophilia, is rage rape a drive that can be cured? Must we be realistic and pessimistic? And if so, what does society do? What do authorities do?
The other two characters at the centre of the film are a damaged man who serves as a companion/counsellor and Nettie, escaping from a dominating and possibly abusive father, who falls in love with Theo. At first repelled, she finds the good in him and hopes that she can help him.
The end is overwhelmingly downbeat, fatalistic.
HOSTEL (US, 2005, d. Eli Roth)
Hostel arrives with severe condemnations as being one of the ugliest, sadistic horror films of recent years. It has also been attacked by the government of Slovakia, where it is set, as giving an awful impression of that country and its people. They are not wrong about that.
But, those of us who see most of the horror films have seen much worse. Rob Zombie’s House of a Thousand Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects were far more explicit and brutal. At least this one has something of a plausible underlying explanation of the horror - the writer-director asserts that he came across a Thai website inviting people to pay money to go and experience killing victims provided by a criminal gang.
More of a difficulty with films like Hostel (and comedies like Eurotrip which it resembles in the first part) is what religious commentators used to refer to as ‘a low moral tone’. This is not the violence and horror. This is rather the presumption that life is meant to be hedonistically self-indulgent, no matter what. The three central characters here are college students and a lecherous type from Iceland descending on Amsterdam, backpacking for ‘a good time’. Within the first twenty minutes, they are seriously stoned, have been desperate to visit a brothel, caused a loud mouthed American brawl and listened to advice about a hostel with girls readily available in Slovakia. These men act like leering adolescents, as if this was how life is to be lived. As heroes of the film, they elicit no empathy. We feel that maybe they should be sliced up sooner rather than later. It is depressing that so many film-makers assume that this is what their audience is like and that this is what they want.
In that context, the torture scenes and the killing are ugly but not as lingered upon as in many others. The violent revenge at the end makes some immediate desperate emotional sense, but...
INSIDE MAN (US, 2006, d. Spike Lee)
A thriller that keeps the interest until the end.
From the very start, Clive Owen looks out at us from the screen and explains himself: the who, the what, the why of a bank robbery - he did it because he could. We then see the how - but, like the hostage negotiator sent to deal with the robbers, Denzel Washington, we miss a lot of the clues as to what is really happening. What looks like a straightforward and elaborate siege with demands for a plane to escape (in the Dog Day Afternoon vein), in fact turns out to be quite something else. It is worth paying attention.
It is something of a surprise to see Spike Lee directing a mainstream thriller with a top cast which includes Jodie Foster as the coolest and most calculating of power brokers, Christopher Plummer as the wealthy bank owner, Willem Dafoe as a police chief and Chiwetel Eijiofor as Washington’s right hand man. They all perform convincingly and are given strong and clever dialogue by first time writer, Russell Gewirtz.
Lee is best known for his dramas which highlight race tensions in the US, Do the Right Think and Malcolm X. Not that this film ignores these issues. Every so often, a character will make a blatantly racist remark about African Americans and Hispanics. The police think that everyone who is dark is an Arab and, potentially a terrorist, and they have no idea what a Sikh is or what respect Sikhs need, especially with their turbans. And, is it calculated that Jodie Foster’s supremely WASP character is named ‘Miss White’?
While the film takes place over some hours and much of the action is confined to the bank or to the vans housing the police, it is still a big scale film and moves with great pace - Lee filmed with two cameras in all scenes, giving him a wide range of choice for shots for the editing, giving it more intensity.
During the action, we keep pace with Washington’s understanding to what is going on, even though he generally gets there before us. The device of flash-forwarding shots of Washington and Eijiofor interrogating hostages after their release leads to both puzzles and tensions during the siege.
Owen comes on at the end to describe his perfect crime. With all the attention to detail, to the anticipation of the police action (for instance, that they have taping devices concealed with the food sent in and so Owen plays tapes of the Albanian president’s speeches to mislead), the screenplay keeps us involved. The final outcome also raises a number of historical, social and international political issues.
L’IVRESSE DE POUVOIR (France, 2005, d. Claude Chabrol) Claude Chabrol is, perhaps, the longest surviving French director whose films are always welcomed and who is screened regularly at festivals. His first feature film, Le Beau Serge, was released in 1958. Chabrol has almost half a century of significant cinema achievement. (He is the same age as Clint Eastwood.)
Chabrol has specialised in human dramas which have explored French society, French ethics and morals, family life, commitment and betrayals as well as French politics. And, generally, he has done this with his skills honed in so many crime dramas. L’Ivresse de Pouvoir has been translated as “Comedy of Power” whereas a more accurate and telling translation would be “The Intoxication of Power”.
Chabrol is up-to-date in commenting on powerful corporations, their deals, their perks for bosses, corruption and double standards whether it be French-based companies or US companies like Enron. The film is, therefore, relevant to France but has universal interest.
We see a number of officials from a multinational company exploiting their power, their political connections, their brokering deals (with huge commissions that they see as part of the rules of the game) with African nations, as well as their indulging in a luxury lifestyle. They are obviously intoxicated by power.
But, the focus is on the judge who is investigating these men and trying to expose them and bring them down. She also becomes intoxicated with power. The judge is played by Isabelle Huppert (who has worked for Chabrol in seven films over the decades). Isabelle Huppert looks much the same in every film but she has the extraordinary talent for transcending how she appears and creating completely different characters in each film. She can be mousey, she can be devious, she can be imperious. This time, she is both earnest and arrogant in her work (and sees herself as something of a fashion plate as well).
Overall, she is confident. She is extraordinarily direct in her interrogations and puts the fear of God into her enemies. But, will she ultimately succeed? Can she succeed, given the ingrown culture of corruption? A further question, behind the scenes, is how will her success affect her marriage and her love for her husband? And what of her nephew who comes to stay and in whom she can confide? And of the young woman imposed on her as an assistant? And of her judicial superior?
Chabrol likes to raise questions like this. He is skilful at creating rounded characters who are interesting. He is also a confident storyteller as well as an observer of French life and pretensions for almost 50 years. L’Ivresse de Pouvoir fits will into his CV.
LOVE + HATE (UK, 2005, d. Dominic Savage)
Love + Hate was written and directed by Dominic Savage. It is a BBC Films production. Savage has made quite a number of documentaries as well as music videos. His main work prior to this film was for television and this is clearly seen in the style of Love + Hate.
The film, produced in 2004, is completely relevant to events in the United Kingdom in 2005. It highlights racial tension in the north of England where the British National Party has a number of members in local administration. It also provides some background to the kind of interracial hatred and clashes with Muslim cultures in English cities. This was to culminate in the Underground and bus bombings in July 2005. (Another film which gives almost prophetic background to the kinds of clashes, to the indoctrination of young Muslims that leads them to be terrorists is given in Red Mercury. Kenny Lagaan’s Yasmin is another powerful story on this subject.)
The setting is Preston in Lancashire. The film takes advantage of local photography, giving an authentic atmosphere of life in the town. The centre of attention, besides the homes of a Pakistani British family as well as a traditional English family, is a shop where representatives of each family work. Tensions are already seen in the shop where a young assistant, Adam, is hostile to the new recruit for the shop, Naseema.
The complication is that Adam is really attracted to Naseema, she to him. Meanwhile, Michelle, who has made her welcome and who is clashing at home with her father, is having a relationship unbeknown to Naseema, with Naseema’s brother. However, the brother has double standards, carries on his affair in secret but is extremely condemnatory when he finds out about Naseema herself.
The film highlights the double standards, the implicit racial attitudes. This is especially seen in the group of young white racists in the town, their acts of violence, ultimately the bashing of Naseema’s brother. Ironically, the screenplay has the brother working with Michelle’s father.
In a short running time, the film is able to recreate the atmosphere in Preston, give insights into the life and styles of a sincere Pakistani family, the pressures on the young women, the double standards of the men. It also highlights the need for breakthrough in understanding these tensions (which, ultimately, can lead to the kind of violence that was seen in the bombings). Love has to overcome the hate.
No. 2 (New Zealand, 2005, d. Toa Fraser)
A fine New Zealand film about Islanders and their families living in the Mount Rosskill suburb of Auckland.
At the outset it could be described as a Southern hemisphere Babette’s Feast in a suburban backyard. While it does not have the solemn and mystical tones of the Danish story, it has the same message. It is a joy to prepare a feast, to invite those close to us, especially when there is hostility between them, and find that food and celebration are able to evoke love, understanding and forgiveness.
No. 2 is the number of the house in the street where Nana Maria lives. Originally from Fiji (with some evocative scenes and photos from that past), Maria and her husband, who served in Sicily in World War II, settled in Auckland and brought up their family there. Maria thinks it is time for her to name her successor as the one responsible for the extended family and to bequeath her house to someone who is a carer and a giver.
Not that Maria is your sweet little old lady. Far from it. She is a very strong-minded matriarch, dominating her own children though wary of them, but devoted to her grandchildren. It is they who are to obey her sudden summons to have a feast, to celebrate and enjoy living. Veteran American actress Ruby Dee (whose husband, Ossie Davis, died the day she arrived in New Zealand, requiring her to return to the US - but she came back a fortnight later), though very small in stature and around 80, is marvellous as Maria.
The film is not about Maoris. Rather, the islanders, descendants of Europeans who took local wives, are Polynesian. This family is Catholic (with an extraordinary parish priest who is very much the kindly elder) but traces of old traditions pervade their lives and mentality. The family have settled into the prevailing New Zealand culture and lifestyle but still value family. No. 2 celebrates family.
Toa Fraser originally wrote the play for a one woman performance of every role. He has opened it up for a film without any trace of theatricality. It is a film one could recommend anyone to see. Quite an achievement for a first film.
OFFSIDE (Iran, 2005, d. Jafar Panahi)
Different countries, different cultures, different customs. While many nations take it for granted that women attend soccer/football matches, this is not the case in Iran. Veteran director, Jafar Panahi, takes the occasion of the 2005 qualifying match for the World Cup between Iran and Bahrain for a comedy of disguise and errors.
Several women and girls are desperate to watch the match and devise different ways of disguise to get past the police and the officials. Most of them are not too hard to spot, so they are caught and held by young military personnel until the match is over.
Comedy is an obvious way to make social comment. The light touch on a serious issue often helps give a perspective that enables observers to make prudent and commonsense decisions. So, the escapades of the women, the jokes about their disguises, the exasperation of the young men and the critique of the customs are all meant to be entertaining - with purpose.
The film moves with a cheerful pace and the audience is invited to share the frustrations of the women - so near and yet so far. When final victory is achieved, some of the tightness disappears in the exhilaration, which means that it should be possible (despite irate fathers who speak of killing their daughters for their behaviour) for men and women to watch the matches together.
Panahi has made several significant films over the last decade, each quite different, the children’s film The White Balloon, the story of women released from gaol, The Circle, and the crime drama, Crimson Gold.
OPAL DREAM (Australia/UK, 2005, d. Peter Cattaneo)
Peter Cattaneo reached a career peak with the unexpected worldwide success of The Full Monty in 1997. His follow up film, the prison comedy, Lucky Break, was only moderately successful. Now he has gone to Australia to direct the family film, Opal Dream, based on a story by Ben Rice, who also worked on the screenplay.
The unusual setting is the opal mining town in the west of New South Wales, Lightning Ridge, (but filmed in what is often referred to as a moonscape desert, Coober Pedy - referred to in the final credits as ‘Cooper Pedy’!). While these towns are generally genial, there is an underlying brutality (seen in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and macho posing in Coober Pedy). Here it is directed towards ‘Ratters’, those accused of going on to rival claims to search for opals. However, right triumphs in the end and the townspeople have to change their attitudes.
What brings this about in the first place is the imagination of Kylie Anne Williamson, played by Sapphire Boyce. Like many children, she has imaginary playmates. However, Pobby and Dignan are completely real to her - to the embarrassment of her brother, Ashmole (Christian Byers) and the concern of her parents (Vince Colosimo and Jacqueline McKenzie). When her father takes her brother to the dig, they forget about Pobby and Dignan and have to claim they lost them. She tearfully begs her father to go back and search, even on another claim. Dad is caught and branded a ratter, bashed by the men of the town and taken to court and prosecuted.
What Cattaneo has done very effectively is to make the film as he would do any drama, not gearing it particularly towards children or expectations of how children should react. This works well. Ashmole and Kelly Anne are more realistic and so is the treatment of the story. Children are on its wavelength and adults can appreciate it as well.
A group of Australian character actors, including David Field, Robert Menzies and Nicholas Bell, round out the cast of a satisfying family film.
THE PINK PANTHER (US, 2006, d. Shawn Levy)
Once upon a time, the Pink Panther was a fabulous jewel. When it was stolen in the very popular film of 1963, the French detective brought in to solve the mystery was the accident-prone, vowel-mumbling Inspector Clouseau. The Pink Panther turned into a literal panther in the wonderful cartoon series - with his own recognisable Henry Mancini signature tune. And Inspector Clouseau became one of the most recognisable of Peter Sellers’ screen characters as well as the similarly inept cartoon detective - again with his own recognisable Henry Mancini signature tune.
Television has kept the Peter Sellers Pink Panther series alive - and now they are being packaged in DVD collections. The funniest Clouseau film was the Pink Panther sequel, A Shot in the Dark. Later there was the PP Strikes Again, The Return of the PP and The Revenge of the PP. Producers tried to get some mileage (and dollars) our of the franchise and Alan Arkin had a go at being Inspector Clouseau and that seemed to be that...
Until... the character’s creator tried again with the rather lame Trail of the Pink Panther - but Peter Sellers was already dead and the makers used archival footage of Sellers himself (and Sellers’ wife won a lawsuit claiming that it insulted his memory). Which didn’t stop the movies. Curse of the Pink Panther had Ted Wass as another inept detective searching for Clouseau who had disappeared. One would have thought that would be the end of it. No, then came Son of the Pink Panther - apparently the Inspector had fathered a son in Italy. He turned out to be Roberto Benigni fifteen years before he amazed us with his Oscar-winning Life is Beautiful.
Inspector Clouseau’s life had been extended for twenty years beyond his original appearance. (Of course, James Bond is still going forty-five years after his debut in 1961.)
All this is a bit of history to give a context for why most people have awaited in horror the resurrection of Inspector Clouseau. And, even worse, with Steve Martin in the role. In recent years he has done a number of remakes of popular films - and has not shone: Sergeant Bilko, the Father of the Bride films, The Out-of-Towners and the (at least for this reviewer) excruciating Cheaper by the Dozen films which desecrated the originals, which only we oldies have seen and appreciated!
Well, should we go to see the new Pink Panther? Updated to the present? Is it funny? Is Steve Martin any good? And what about Kevin Kline taking Herbert Lom’s place as Inspector Dreyfuss? Will Cato be there?
The answer is yes and no!
Critics in the US and the UK have been devastatingly negative. Box office in the US and the UK has confounded the critics and has been very successful.
There are some laughs at the slapstick and the bumbling - which also confounds the authorities as Clouseau solves the mystery in some deductions that would put Poirot and Miss Marple to shame. In fact, the new PP is more cheerful and amusing than I would have anticipated.
However, Steve Martin does not have the same finesse and timing as Sellers and the supreme self-confidence as he walks through accidents and mayhem that he has caused. One way of gauging this would be to have a look at the 2004 film The Life and Death of Peter Sellers where Geoffrey Rush (not the first actor one would have thought of to portray Sellers) impersonates a fictional scene where Sellers is flying to Rome to film The Pink Panther. He is not happy about how he will do the role. He goes to the toilet and when he comes out he acts like Clouseau with a flight attendant. It is Sellers. It is Clouseau. And it is funny.
But, as with all films, we can make up our own minds.
THE RED COCKATOO (Germany, 2006, d. Dominik Graf)
Many German audiences and many from around the world have found stories of East Germany and the Berlin Wall continually fascinating. This is one of those stories. It has a poignancy because the protagonists in 1961 were barely twenty. When the wall came down and they took stock of how the separation had affected their lives, they were almost fifty. Three decades of their vital years had been affected.
The setting is the few months of the summer of 1961 before the wall went up in August. While it was a police state and citizens mouthed socialist principles and a suspicion of the west, many of the younger generation had never been there, not even to West Berlin. Yet, rock and roll seemed here to stay. The youngsters loved it, danced to it, flocked to bars and clubs. But, the police trampled the records and the record players, beat the students and soon a serious gloom was to settle on the east.
The Red Cockatoo was one of those clubs, a kind of refuge for Siggi, a young man from a country village who is apprenticed as a theatre designer in Dresden, for Wolle a tearaway type who has married the handicapped, Luise, who works in a schnapps factory and is loved by Siggi. There are a number of others in the circle, especially the lead singer in the club band.
As the screen points out continually that there were only fewer and fewer weeks until the Berlin wall went up, we see the young people in love, clashing, in fear, wary of informers, arrested, tried, sentenced and some escaping to the west while others were trapped and never seen again.
While there is a lightheartedness of youth about the story, it is also sad and, in retrospect, audiences now wonder how people tolerated this harsh, unfeeling regime with its sealed borders, its police patrols and where even a book of poems can be the cause of life changing suffering. A film which is interesting, entertaining and saddening.
During 2005, a surprise box-office success around the world was Scott Derrickson’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose, around $80,000,000 in the US alone. It was based on events which occurred in Bavaria in the mid-1970s. The screenplay for Emily Rose adapted some of these events and characters to the United States and fictionalised them.
At the 2006 Berlinale, a new German film, Requiem, was screened in the main Competition, winning a Silver Bear for the performance of Sandra Hueller as well as the award from the international federation of film critics (FIPRESCI). Critics at the festival tended to praise Requiem at the expense of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, sometimes indulging in the perennial critical pastime, the putdown of the Hollywood movie. They praised Requiem for its more direct storytelling and more straightforward in dealing with the psychological and religious issues of possession.
However, it needs to be said that Emily Rose is an American genre film, a psychological and religious thriller, and needs to be critiqued accordingly, appreciating the conventions it relies on and uses. Requiem is not a genre film. Rather, it is a serious-minded European-style drama.
The director and screenwriter have both stated that they do not believe in demonic possession. They see the experience of the central character, here called Michaela, as a physical and mental health condition. It is shown that Michaela has suffered from epilepsy since childhood. However, they wanted to present the possession of Michaela in as detached a way as they could. They respect the beliefs of Michaela and her family and want to tell the story so that audiences will be able to assess the different opinions on possession They want to present the story without bias. They have.
One of the difficulties for audiences watching films like Emily Rose and Requiem is that they have largely been pre-conditioned to expect rather sensational visualisations of possession as well as reactions to exorcism. William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) has set a benchmark: physical contortions, bile spewing, levitation, gross language and abuse. Sequels and prequels and imitations over the decades have reinforced this. Emily Rose is quite restrained in its presentation of possession phenomena, relying on performance rather than special effects. This is even truer of Requiem. The possession does affect Michaela’s physical condition but not so grotesquely. There are some manifestations of loss of control (spitting at her mother) and some abusive language. There is only one exorcism sequence and, unlike the other films, where this always happens at night, it takes place in daylight.
The parish priest in Emily Rose is accused of negligent homicide because he supported Emily Rose in her decision to stop taking her medication. Most of the film takes place in the court. There are two priests in Requiem. The elderly parish priest who has known Michaela for a long time is wary of too supernatural an explanation. He asks a younger, more educated priest to help. This priest is more inclined to believe Michaela and is in favour of prayer to confront the demons. Both priests perform the exorcism in a rather low-key manner. (A postscript to the film informs audiences that Michaela experienced several more exorcisms and finally weakened and died.)
Most viewers, including Christians, will be more prone to accept the psychological explanation. This is certainly the ‘secular’ opinion. The screenplay of Emily Rose, however, reminds us that anthropological information gives evidence of demonic possession in many cultures other than Christian. That needs to be seriously considered.
However, there are two Catholic comments that can be made and they apply both to Emily Rose and to Requiem. Theologically speaking, the two films take similar stances. The two films can be seen as complementary.
The first point is that there is a long Christian tradition that chosen individuals, men and women, seem to have been singled out, with a ‘vocation’, to be tempted and tested, to suffer, to experience personal physical and mental torment. They witness to evil in the world. They witness to the need for repentance, reconciliation, reparation and atonement. In Requiem, towards the beginning of the film, Michaela goes on a parish pilgrimage to an Italian shrine of St Katharine, a recluse who suffered great pain and died at the age of 33. Michaela is impressed by this saint and begins to understand her life and death as a parallel. It is very clearly this spirituality that Michaela accepts, seeing herself as a suffering witness for God, a martyr.
The second point concerns what seems to be a clash between religion and science. Developments in the theology of miracles throw light on this issue. In the earlier centuries of the church, events which were proclaimed as miracles could well have been explained by natural causes, or were the product of suggestion or superstition. In the 18th century, in the Age of Enlightenment, Pope Benedict XIV drew up stringent criteria for assessing the truth of miracles of healing. To move away from piety and from superstition, it was decreed that miracles were cures beyond what was naturally possible. For the next centuries, there was rigorous examination of miracles (as in Lourdes) or those accepted for the processes of beatification and canonization of saints.
This, however, can relegate the context of faith to a lesser consideration. The important aspect of miracles (as in the Gospel narratives) is that the healing takes place in a context of prayer and belief. In that sense, the physical possibility of healing or self-healing is less important and can be acknowledged. It is the faith context which is all important.
A parallel can be used for possession and exorcism. While there may be medical, psychological and physical explanations for the condition and for the cure, the exorcism, it is the context of faith that is most important. There should not be any logical dichotomy between faith and science.
Requiem is a mainstream drama for many audiences, especially Europeans, but less likely to be popular in the movie complexes. But, it also raises many questions of faith. While the film-makers of Requiem do not profess faith, they have shown respect for faith and for those who believe. There is a key scene and line in Requiem when Michaela first arrives for lectures and is late. The professor asks her what she believes in. She simply says, ‘in God’. There is some general laughter in disbelief and mockery among the students. The professor remarks that that is where the trouble is. In scepticism.
THE RINGER (US, 2005, d. Bruce Blaustein)
A very pleasant surprise.
Not knowing that the film was a comedy about the Special Olympics but knowing that Johnny Knoxville was the star meant that I was anticipating a cross between Jackass and The Dukes of Hazard. I was wrong. Again, I did not know that the Farrelly Brothers were the producers but as the film went along, it definitely seemed Farrelly Brothers’ material. They push the envelope, they say, in terms of subjects for their films, political correctness and good taste. They have ventured into the area of mental challenge in There’s Something About Mary and Me, Myself and Irene. They made comedy of obesity in Shallow Hal and Siamese twins in Stuck on You. These are topics that make the average audience alert to sympathy for those with physical and mental disabilities rather uncomfortable. Should these be topics of comedy? Do they exploit the challenged?
These comedies make the point that there is a danger of condescension in the concern about what is permissible for humour or not. There is the danger of a paternalistic/maternalistic superiority of ‘doing good’ for those less fortunate. The challenged (and that word raises these problems in itself) want respect (and the final credits song highlights this) not velvet glove attempts at inoffensiveness. Three of the main characters in this film are veterans of the Special Olympics and the film has the blessing and participation of the Special Olympics Association.
Johnny Knoxville plays against his screen image so far. He sees himself as a loser. But he is quite a sensitive type - which gets him into a tangle: a debt of $28,000 to help a friend for an operation to sew his mower-clipped fingers back on. He also has a lowlife uncle who gambles. What if he pretended to be mentally disabled, challenged the champion and his uncle bet a fortune on the result?
Brian Cox as the uncle gets the chance to say some appallingly funny prejudiced remarks and satirise the ignorantly insensitive. Katherine Heigl is charming as one of the workers with the Special Olympics team. The team is presented as a humorous bunch who also get the chance to say some outrageously incorrect statements.
But, the whole film is quite funny, rather sweet in the way that everything works out, including telling the truth. It proves that humour, once again, is a great means for overcoming prejudice and helping people appreciate one another as they are.
ROMANCE AND CIGARETTES (US, 2005, d. John Turturro)
In the 1970s, Dennis Potter created a series for British television where the characters used popular songs to express their inner thoughts and feelings: Pennies from Heaven. He followed it up with the celebrated The Singing Detective. This was something new: a way of telling old stories eliciting from the cast different kinds of performance, eliciting from the audience their connections to the songs sung by the characters. It was a musical shortcut to empathy and understanding.
Hollywood made their versions of Pennies from Heaven (1981 with Steve Martin) and The Singing Detective (2004 with Robert Downey Jr). Woody Allen used the technique with Everyone says I Love You. Alain Resnais did it with Not on the Lips. The Spanish made The Other Side of the Bed. This style is not to everyone’s taste, especially those who prefer more realistic films.
Now John Turturro has done it with the producing help of his friends, the Coen Brothers. He began it, he notes, while the Coens were filming Barton Fink in which he played a writer. He thought that while he acted he should type something real. The opening scenes of Romance and Cigarettes are what he wrote. He wanted to overcome some of the criticisms of the fantasy aspects of this genre by making his characters down-to-earth types from Jersey (and music-loving audiences need to be warned that a lot of the dialogue - especially from Kate Winslett - is very much down-and-dirty earthy).
For most of the time, it is take it or leave it treatment of a marriage, philandering husband, odd daughters and a band, revenge. The leave-it option is at times very strong! However, it does get serious (and moral) in the last twenty minutes, including a short but effective confessional sequence.
It has a motley cast. James Gandolfini transcends the Sopranos as the builder who gets entangled with a seductive redhead with a provincial British accent, Kate Winslett. His wife is played by Susan Sarandon very affectingly (although she is in fact fifteen years older than Gandolfini). Steve Buscemi is low-key funny as a sex-focussed fellow worker on the building site and Elaine Stritch has a scene-stealing moment as Gandolfini’s mother. Then there is Christopher Walken as Cousin Bo being Walken - only more so!!
The title reminds us that life is both sweet and tar-tasting.
RYNA (Romania, 2005, d. Ruxandra Zedine) Ryna was directed by Ruxandra Zedine who studied in Switzerland, in New York as well as in Prague. She directed a number of short films and this film, made in her late twenties, is her directorial feature debut.
The film is set in a remote area of Romania, a small town on the Danube River which relies on industry from the fish in the river - but is in danger of contamination. Ryna is sixteen years old, her father runs a service station. Because he had wanted a son, he has brought her up like a boy - making her look like a boy, forbidding her girls’ clothes, forbidding her her own life.
In the house is her grandfather who takes a benign interest in her and on whom she relies.
When a survey team comes from France to examine the implications for health on the inhabitants of the town, she befriends the French statistician. She acts as a translator and also gives him information about her own life.
Her father is suspicious. This precipitates a crisis for her - which means a confrontation between the authorities, a corrupt official with whom the father is doing financial deals, and the father himself. Ryna is able, at last, to emerge from the restrictions of her life and plan a life for the future. In that sense, while the film is very drab in its setting as are the lives of the people in this part of the country, there is some kind of hope at the end, some breaking free.
Dorothea Petre is very good as the young Ryna - the centre of the film as well as the strength of audience identification with the characters and situations.
THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP (France, 2006, d. Michel Gondry)
Plenty of sleep, very little (if any) science! A credit is offered at the end of the film to Rhys Ifans for the title. Director Michel Gondry and Ifans had worked together on the offbeat comedy (which did have a lot of science), Human Nature. They must have been having discussions about dreams and nightmares - and it has led to this fanciful comic essay on human nature.
Gondry had made another film in the United States after Human Nature, the well-received Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, written by a master of unusual screenplays, Charlie Kauffman. Eternal Sunshine delved into the mysteries of memory and suggested (more science) techniques of eliminating unwanted memories and starting life afresh.
Now Gondry, writing his own screenplay, is pondering the world of dreams compared with the world of daylight reality - and asking what is more real. But, he does it in a comic style, visualising dreams in a non-sequitur colourful world, using animation for dream characters and events, to tantalise the audience into wondering about the interplay between waking and sleeping states.
Not all of it works - or it will depend on audience willingness to suspend disbelief and on personal tastes in comedy and visual flair. Some will find their funnybones continually tickled and their imaginations sparked. Others will find the feyness of some of the episodes too irrational and the comedy too hit and miss. Most will be somewhere along the continuum between love and hate.
Gael Garcia Bernal has been consolidating his international career after his substantial beginnings in his native Mexico. From Amores Perros, Y Tu Mama Tambien and Fr Amaro to Mal Educacion and Motorcycle Diaries. Bernal can be a bit fey himself at times and this suits the role of an illustrator (who has a portfolio for a calendar with memories for a disaster of the month) who slips into dreams and out of them with confusing (to him and to us) regularity. His colleagues at the publishing company are very tolerant, although they are a strange lot. His French mother (Miou-Miou) is much more down to earth and not a great deal of help. And he becomes infatuated with the girl next door (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who may or may not like him in dreams or in reality.
Like the experiences of the hero, The Science of Sleep is something of a hit and miss experience.
THESE FOOLISH THINGS (UK, 2005, d. Julia Taylor-Stanley)
This may not be your glass of Dom Perignon (there is more of that around in this film than cups of tea, except for the poor actors who live in lower class digs, living in hope of getting and audition and a part). The setting is London, 1938-1939, the world of the West End theatre, the more genteel end while Mrs Henderson was operating the Windmill just around the corner from Shaftsbury Ave.
This film is a labour of love for the writer-director, Julia Taylor-Stanley, who has adapted a 1930s novel by Noel Langley, There’s a Porpoise Close Behind Us. However, she has so situated the screenplay in those times that it comes across very much as an anachronism: nostalgia for those who love the period, quaint (at least) for those who are unfamiliar with it. However, it is often salted a little (from the prevailing more sugary taste) by some intimations of the gay world and camp language and behaviour.
It comes across as Mills and Boon filtered through Stephen Fry.
An aspiring young actress (Zoe Tapper), daughter of a theatrical diva, tries for a career, is attracted towards a young playwright while falling in love with a sympathetic director. A vain, gay leading man tries to humiliate her and seduce the playwright. Her jealously obnoxious cousin creates mischief. However, a wealthy American entrepreneur (Anjelica Huston), the grande dame of the theatre (Lauren Bacall) and a sardonic butler (Terence Stamp) are on her side - even after her extraordinarily unconvincing audition as Ophelia which the screenplay says is marvellous.
They did talk like that in those days and in the films of those days, but now...?
TRANSAMERICA (US, 2005, d. Duncan Tucker)
There is a lot going for this unusual tale about a transsexual man becoming a woman.
Felicity Huffman (one of the Desperate Housewives) won a Golden Globe and was Oscar-nominated for her performance as Bree Osborne, formerly Stanley, who has been fulfilling the requirements of living as a woman and having counselling prior to the operation. With a week to go, she suddenly discovers that she has a teenage son. He is a prostitute in New York City. Her counsellor will not sign the surgery papers until she has resolved the issue with the son.
The film is a road movie, trans America for an American trans. Pretending to be a Christian missionary, Bree bails out the young man but does not reveal the truth. This odd couple drives cross country finishing up at Bree’s parents home in Arizona. The two get to know each other - which, of course, leads to the crisis when the truth is told.
The screenplay is often moving, often funny. Bree is the extreme of cultured ladylike behaviour, very prim. (Later, we see that she has absorbed a lot of this from her demanding mother, Fionnula Flanagan). The boy, Toby (Kevin Zegers) has no moral anchor, drugs and sexual encounters are just routine part of the day. His ambition is to be in the movies - of the porn variety. But, he has an internal sense of what is good and bad, despite past abuse by his stepfather. He could make good. This is what Bree discovers in him. She also has to learn what being a parent could be and what it could mean for her.
As with road movies, they encounter a motley group of characters along the way, generally low-key and without disaster. The time disaster does strike, we are as little prepared for it as they are.
The world of the transsexual trying to live an ordinary life in society is not one that most audiences are familiar with. They would be tempted to back off. But, this is a form of denial. People like Bree have struggled all their lives in ways that those with no identity crisis cannot imagine. Respect and understanding are deserved. Young men like Toby are pushed to the fringe, generally the exploitative and exploited fringe and cannot be ignored either.
The film invites its audience to be not just sympathetic but empathetic, to feel the experiences with the characters, the humdrum experiences, the mistakes as well as the hopes. Writer-director Duncan Tucker has achieved this, aided so much by Felicity Huffman’s convincing performance.
TSOTSI (South Africa/UK, 2005, d. Gavin Hood)
Audiences don’t get much opportunity to see films from South Africa. Even the two films made for international audiences on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, John Boorman’s In My Country (with Juliet Binoche and Samuel L. Jackson) and Tom Hooper’s Red Dust (with Hilary Swank and Chiwitel Eijiofor) did not receive cinema release in the UK. Nor did Drum, an award-winning film about the stands of the magazine Drum in the 1950s and its reporting of atrocities.
South African directors have made a number of films about the aftermath of the end of apartheid and the troubles with young people in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Some films worth seeking out include The Wooden Camera, Dollars and Pipes, Zulu Love Letter and The Flyer. Yesterday, about AIDS in a village was Oscar-nominated.
It is a good providence that Tsotsi won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film. It gets the chance to be seen more widely.
Tsotsi was adapted by writer-director, Gavin Hood (A Reasonable Man with Nigel Hawthorne) from the only novel by celebrated South African playwright, Athol Fuggard. It has been updated to the present - which is not too different from the past when the young men of the townships emulated the gangster life. The film opens with some brutal killings on a city train and a robbery with dire consequences in a wealthy suburban home.
David (a strong performance by Presley Chweneyagae) is simply known as Tsotsi (a word for thug). He and his gang have no qualms about brutal treatment when they mug and rob. When Tsotsi steals a car which contains a baby, his feelings and his conscience are challenged. He remembers his past, his mother’s illness and death and his drunken father’s violence. He brutally enlists the help of a young widow with a child to feed the foundling. Ultimately, he has to make choices for or against the gang, for or against a sense of decency.
The film is well-crafted, shot and edited. The local musical score gives it an extra beat and an authentic feel. Maybe, the plot is in some ways predictable. Maybe the characters are somewhat stereotyped. But, the film is so well put together, with so much feeling and intensity, that it works very well in communicating to a worldwide audience.
TWO FOR THE MONEY (US, 2005, d. D.J.Caruso)
Scripture is often quoted as saying that ‘money is the root of all evil’. That is not quite exact. The actual quotation is that ‘the love of money is the root of all evil’. That is certainly the text for this film. It is a film about gambling, about gambling addiction. This reviewer had to react carefully as gambling is not one of his favourite pastimes.
This is a moral film. By the end it is a moralising film. It has taken us on a journey of self-discovery by Brandon Lang (Matthew McConaughy), a boy who wanted to please his father with his sports talent, who went on to be a champion college footballer (but whose alcoholic father walked out on the family) and who, in one of his greatest scores, suffered a leg injury that stopped him from playing again. In the meantime (which turned out to be six years), he worked as a sales phone operator.
On to the other end of the phone comes Walter Abrams with an offer to good to refuse. Walter is played by Al Pacino, not quite so over the top as in recent years, but a strong performance that mesmerises both Brandon and the audience. Pacino has already had the opportunity to play Satan in the modern business world in The Devil’s Advocate. While this is something of a re-run, it is a creative variation on the theme.
Walter runs a legal, though shady and morally dubious, betting company that gives comprehensive tips for wins but does not handle bets. What it does handle is a percentage on winnings that result from advice given. Obviously it is worth millions (well, not ‘worth’ millions but that is the kind of income the company makes).
Walter is also a gambling addict who has been ‘clean’ for eighteen years. However, his business risk-taking is just another form of addiction. He also confesses that he gets a thrill from the experience of losing - and he finally risks the loss both of his friendship and partnership with Brandon as well as of his wife and daughter. The film is obviously about Walter’s moral journey but this is a highways and byways (and dead ends) kind of journey, much less obvious than Brandon’s succumbing to Walter’s wiles and the get-rich-quick - and now - philosophy of life. Brandon can succeed because he is a whiz at tipping football game winners.
Another quotation, this time from the poet W.B.Yeats, reminds us that in a time of crisis, ‘the centre cannot hold’. Walter so pressurises Brandon that he has no life left for himself. Brandon also discovers that Walter is more manipulative of people’s lives than he had ever suspected. And when he starts to pressurise customers into higher risk-betting, his conscience starts to get to him. This is reinforced when he starts to unravel in his tips and is bashed by a Puerto Rican billionaire (Armand Assante) who relies on his advice and loses.
What will Brandon do? What are the real choices in a hedonistic, materialistic world? To go with the flow or to take a moral stance?
The film capitalises on the contrast between the hyperactive Pacino and the extremely laid-back McConaughey who tends to rely on his kind of aw-shucks charm and his image as what PR calls ‘ a hunk’ (he is fit and does spend a lot of movie time doing push-ups). Rene Russo (whose husband, Dan Gilroy, wrote the screenplay) appears as Pacino’s wife, a former drug addict for whom every day is a challenge to keep going and not fall back.
In the background are the phone sales staff with their intense patter and pressurising of customers, their victims whom they con and who allow their addictions to con them.