Sunday, 28 June 2009

Changeling movie review

Clint Eastwood has made a career out of making the most of minimal emotion. His grim jawed cowboys, cops and hard man made famous, single lines of menace but almost always on the side of the right and oppressed. A most masculine of heroes.
Behind the camera however he exudes a calm and a confidence. With the gentlest of motions he start a scene and allows the actor to maintain their character and step into frame. While his steel eyed squint and muscular frame give the impression of ruffian or rogue, he conveys a very real and honest emotion in the stories he tells and the music he writes.
And so it is with Changeling, a film in which he directs, that allows Angelina Jolie to play single mother Christine Collins. The story is a simple one: Set in 1928 Los Angeles, Collins goes off to work one Saturday leaving her 9 year old son Walter at home by himself. When she returns he is gone.
Jolie is a fine actress who successfully communicates a strong but vulnerable woman without overwrought emotion. A good choice for a director like Eastwood. As Collins, Jolie uses her large soulful eyes to convey a pitiable character that we empathise with and urge onwards in her quest to find her son. She wears a cloche hat during most of the film, a fitted bell shaped hat popular in the ‘20s. Jolie said that her costume allowed her to ‘put on’ her shy character and she often looks up at you from under the brim of her hat as though hiding behind it. But this belies her inner strength as she time and again gets back up to fight the bureaucracy that keeps her from learning the truth. She played a similar role in A Mighty Heart, as a wife who waits to hear of news of her reporter husband, kidnapped by terrorists in Pakistan. She was nominated for a Best Actress nomination in Changeling.
What happens to her son is the narrative that drives the story forward. While we observe corrupt and political police officers and hospital attendants there are good men too that both do their job and champion her cause.
We watch in quiet horror as this “true story” is played out before us. Later in the film, during a court case, a prosecutor articulates our disgust and revolution over what has happened. We are gratified to have someone stand up for the injustices that Christine Collins has received. The story keeps returning us to Collins who earns our respect as a woman who endures in this real life suburban horror. 4 out of 5 from me.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

The Class movie review

Before you realise it in The Class, France’s nomination for this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Film, you are sitting through a French grammar class full of 14 year olds, lead by teacher Francois Marin. And you are asking yourself, how is this film going to take us on a journey from the classroom?
The students represent the many colours and origins of modern Paris : Mali, the Caribbean, China, Morocco and many more. When the teacher uses the every-name “Bill” in a sentence on the blackboard, the students take him to task for not using a name they are familiar with such as Assïata, Fatou or Ahmed.
Director Laurent Cantet and writer Francois Begaudeau (who also plays Marin) have written a broad based script around the relationships between the students in this real life high school and their teacher. By role playing and improvising over the course of one academic year they have refined their ideas and allowed the students to confidently play a version of themselves.
The students are from a poor neighbourhood but the usual school yard experiences apply. Some aspire to a good university; most are struggling with the fact that French is not the language spoken at home; while some appear not to try at all and discipline becomes a problem.
They are a little more outspoken than I recall my classes being but perhaps that is the attitude of the modern student or perhaps they have allowed themselves a little more leeway because they are doing it in front of the camera. One student is reprimanded for a poor attitude. One teacher storms into the tea room, fed up with his students who won’t listen.
The teachers reveal themselves to be concerned about the students welfare, wanting to impart life’s lessons but become frustrated at the students apparent lack of interest. It seems that the school ethos is to respect every voice but this leaves them, to a certain extent, powerless when the students begin to assert their rights by not participating in class, answering back and being undeterred by threats of punishment.
Honestly, who allows 14 year old class reps into a teachers meeting where other students are discussed and are then surprised their motivations are misunderstood? It is from this event that the classroom spins out of control, and events transpire that builds the movie’s tension.
I did wonder a little at the teacher’s handling of the situation who seemed unable to apologise for his actions or better act out the subtlety required. I acknowledge however it is easy to criticise from a distance. Having to actually enter the classroom, impart knowledge and maintain control is a mix of such complex skills that it is a wonder that any attempt the vocation at all, and all the good teachers deserve our respect, thanks and admiration.
But as always, the strength of the story comes from strong characters with whom we identify. We come to realise what these students have going for them and that they have their whole lives ahead of them. We join in the celebration at the end of year because of what they have accomplished. 3½ out of 5.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Doubt movie review

In his play, Doubt, writer John Shanley said that he wanted the last Act to be the conversation that two people had with each other as they left the theatre. “Did he or didn’t he? ... Did you just see the same production as me?”
The expectations of the average cinema goer is I think different to that of the average theatre audience. I don’t know if its an unwillingness to be challenged, more that we expect a resolution, or at least have the film declare its moral viewpoint.
In adapting for the big screen, Shanley (who also directs) has fleshed out the look and feel of the story by developing ancillary characters, such as other students and nuns, and staging the whole production in the very catholic primary school in the Bronx, New York he attended as a child.
School principal and head nun, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is the type of school mistress that adheres to the rigid customs of discipline and order, of whom the “students are uniformly terrified.”
Sister Aloysius suspects Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of inappropriate behaviour with the school’s first and only black student, 12 year old Donald Miller. What she lacks in proof, she makes up for in moral certainty. Sister Aloysius asks Sister James (Amy Adams) to watch for any suspicious behaviour and when Sister James observes young Miller’s unusual actions after returning from a visit to Father’s office, with alcohol on his breath, Sister Aloysius’ suspicions are confirmed.
At the halfway point in this film, all three characters meet in Sister Aloysius’ office. Amy Adams plays wide eyed sweetness and innocence better than most, and her role here of the good hearted, naive Sister James is described by Shanley as “the warm centre between two battling giants.” And what a scene it is. Streep just explodes as her character is able to sharpen the blade of her moral outrage on Seymour Hoffman’s whetstone. Every thrust of hers is met with his parry, and her Oscar nomination is justified from this scene alone.
This leads to Sister Aloysius meeting with the boy’s mother, Mrs Miller (Viola Davis) whose attitude and reaction is entirely unexpected and catches Sister Aloysius unawares.
Sister Aloysius is motivated by care and love, even if it is demonstrated in an austere manner. Her dry humour and sharp observations serve to humanise her away from the spotlight of students and peers. In her bid to “outshine the fox in cleverness,” to force Father Flynn to confess, she calls in to question her own integrity, which is one of many ‘doubts’ one has in the watching, which is perhaps the point.
Father Flynn likewise claims to have the student’s best interest at heart but is at odds with Sister Aloysius in his desire to modernise their Catholic customs, schooling and worship. The film is set in 1964, the year of the Second Vatican Council which relaxed some of the strict customs that had been followed up to then; this provides some context to their backgrounds.
The opening line to the film is the start of Father Flynn’s sermon, “What do you do when you’re not sure?” This question hangs in the balance for the duration of the film. Our emotions are swayed by the calibre of the acting and the small glimpses we think we see. As I stated at the beginning, when watching a film, we are “trained” to look for cues that will assist us in unravelling the film. This film tries to absolve itself of this and leave it up to us to make a decision on what to believe. While this may work well in a stage play, I’m not so sure it works well here. The ending just didn’t quite work for me and a key character’s final scene felt out of touch with the rest of the film.
All four actors, Streep, Seymour Hoffman, Adams and Davis, received Best Acting Oscar nominations which gives the film its force. The set design and the behaviour of the characters is entirely believable and helps tell the story. 3 out of 5 for me.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Socceroos qualify for 2010 World Cup

Well done the Socceroos who have qualified for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Their nil-all draw against Qatar last night earned them the last point they needed to secure a top 2 position in their group to be one of 4 (and a half) Asian region places up for grabs.
Their final qualifying games are against Bahrain and Japan. Japan is the only other country from Asia to have similarly qualified.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

The Visitor movie review

University professor, Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is living a wasted life in The Visitor. Emotionally he has shut down, he never smiles and has no empathy or interest in others . Walter is called away to New York for a conference where he has long owned an apartment but has not visited in some time. There he meets Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira) illegal immigrants from Syria and Senegal who have been living in his apartment thinking they had genuinely rented an empty apartment from ‘Ivan’ - obviously part of some real-estate scam.
Initially intent on throwing them out, Walter allows them to stay until they find a place to stay. Although Zainab is reserved and wary of Walter, Tarek’s zest for life slowly seeps into Walter’s lonely existence. Tarek plays the Djembe, an African drum and the rhythm and beauty of this instrument slowly awakens Walter, as though calling him to life from a long and cold sleep.
The second act, the thawing of Walter comes to an abrupt halt as Tarek is arrested and taken to a correctional facility for illegal refugees. Walter acts as chief go between for his new friend and Zainab, who understandably, does not want to venture inside such a place for fear that she will not be allowed out.
The third act unexpectedly hints at the germination of a new love welling up within Walter as his warming continues. Again, the way the film communicates these experiences for Walter does so economically yet without losing their impact.
The film plays out the harsh reality for refugees in the post-9/11 Western world (where “either you belong or you don’t”). We come to accept many implausible endings from Hollywood productions and it is a testament to writer / director Tom McCarthy that he presents a sensitive film about people and relationships which doesn’t scream MESSAGE MOVIE at any stage.
The film also does not ever tell us what to think or how to feel, another of the typical Hollywood foibles. We do not get a post-film epilogue to let us know that everything turns out alright, for example. The last scene is the most beautiful. Walter takes his drum to an underground railway station and starts playing. The location and the action are significant and it is how Walter plays that gives us the merest glimpse to his (and our) state of mind.
A beautiful and understated film that is all the more welcome as it is unanticipated. Were it not for Richard Jenkins’ Best Actor Oscar nomination it would have passed by altogether. I strongly encourage you to locate it and watch.
4 out of 5.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

The Duchess movie review

The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley as Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, desperately wants to be an historic bio-pic that fetes the life of a “modern” woman, repressed by 18th century English culture. “Based on true events,” the real life Duchess was apparently a celebrated beauty and a socialite who gathered around her a large circle of literary and political figures (thank-you Wikipedia).
The film, The Duchess, by way of one or two scenes tries to suggest this great social character. It starts with Keira Knightley as the 17-year old virginal girl, married off to The Duke (Ralph Fiennes) by her mother, Lady Spencer (Charlotte Rampling). His sole goal in marrying her is to breed a son. She naively thinks that her marriage might be one that builds a relationship.
The movie then skips 6 years and low and behold The Duchess has become this socialite who “expresses herself through her dresses.” The development of this outspoken and charismatic woman might have been interesting. Instead the film fails to build any tension of its own. It relies on us identifying with the moral conundrum faced by the women by their miserable husbands : pursue happiness on their own terms or lose access to their children.
The unsympathetic, emotionally-handicapped Duke is well portrayed by Fiennes. It is said that “he is the only man in England who is not in love with his wife” as he chases other young women to be his bed companions. His relations with his wife extends only as long as it takes to sire a son. His conversation is virtually nil, his interest in his wife minimal and then utters the most redundant line in the film, “I’m not particularly adept at expressing myself when it comes to matters of a more personal nature.” Thanks Duke - I think we worked that out. The film failed to tell a cohesive story and this is but one small instance.
The film won Best Oscar for Costume Design and it is perhaps best to enjoy it from this perspective. There’s nothing like a romping period drama with a large budget to go all out with. The backdrop of spacious manor houses and luxuriant living allows Knightley to act with poise and grace as she models these voluminous, multi-layered dresses made of the finest silk, taffeta and satin. Her wigs are the most stupendous creations, with feathers or flowers to accent them impressively. Alternatively a hat and parasol extols her virtue when venturing outside. Her makeup is impeccable : the slightest rouge to highlight her cheekbones, and either a “natural” red for lips that must pucker, or auburn for a subdued expression. Knightley is the perfect model for the artists behind the scenes and the film is a worthy winner.
2 out of 5.