Friday, 5 April 2013

Film: 'DANS LA MAISON'

A delightful, light-touch, mystery-comedy from Francois Ozon who seems to have a growing knack of coming up with films of intriguing, original storylines which lodge in the memory long afterwards.

Fabrice Luchini plays a rather dull and bored schoolteacher whose interest in his work is suddenly aroused when one of his teenage pupils presents him with a particularly well-written essay of how he has wheedled himself into the family home of a classmate under the pretext of helping him with his maths difficulties. He ends his composition with the words "A suivre" (to be continued), picking it up later with what turns out to be a whole series of instalments, hooking not only the teacher but his art-gallery manager wife, the always marvellous Kristin Scott Thomas (who now seems to be appearing with more regularity in French language films than English). He shows her the first essay, ostensibly because of his pupil's superior use of language and very soon her curiosity is also aroused. She too is drawn into the drama of what the boy is up to, each instalment leaving on a 'cliff-hanger' as the pupil describes how he begins, not only to snoop around his friend's house whilst leaving him to do maths exercises, but also to eavesdrop on the conversations of the latter's parents. The teacher and wife are constantly wondering if what the pupil says he did actually happened - and so are we. Then the teacher gets so involved that when there's threat that the boy might have to stop helping his friend he intervenes to do something borderline criminal so that he'll be allowed to carry on as before. It takes a serious turn or two as the intruding youth gets ever-closer to the mother, both physically and emotionally, but I think these are justified as they serve to point up the amusing parts by giving the story some shadow in its light-hearted approach. And it all ends in really the only way it could, leaving me with a satisfying, though appropriately incomplete, smile.

It's a film that doesn't go for the really big laughs or the grand gestures. Maybe those which puzzle the audience into wondering the difference between truth and reality have become very voguish now, but this one plays it with a neat, confident touch. 
As in several of Ozon's films there is a bit of gay angle to part of the storyline (here quite slight), though it does afford the 'excuse' for a quite sudden and gratuitous, very brief homophobic put-down, something I always find particularly wounding, though maybe that's just me. 

A very worthwhile film and, with the exception of 'Cloud Atlas' (and maybe 'Lincoln') my most enjoyed film of this year so far..................................7.5/10


Thursday, 28 March 2013

Film: 'TRANCE'

(It's been longer than it should have been since my last seen film. In the interval a number have come and gone which I'd like to have seen. A major reason for missing them was preferring not to venture out during our prevailing weather, this having been our coldest March for 50 years, with nightly frosts and daytime temps still scarcely above freezing. And there's still no sign of the end of it!)


Any Danny Boyle film is an 'event' - he of 'Shallow Grave', 'Trainspotting', '28 Days Later', 'Slumdog Millionaire', '127 Hours' as well as, of course, last year's Olympic Games opening ceremony.
This latest of his has had a somewhat cooler reception than some of those I've mentioned, at least among those critics I've seen. I would tend to concur with them.

James McAvoy (of whom, must admit, I'm not particularly an admirer) plays an auctioneer who is involved with a criminal gang to steal a Goya from public auction rooms while an auction is in progress. During the crime he receives a knock on the head which renders him incapable of remembering what he's done with the painting. The gang leader (Vincent Cassel in convincingly 'nasty' mode) after a violent preamble, decides to send him to a hypnotherapist to recover his memory of the object's location.

As so often recently I did find the first 2/3 of this film very entertaining. The premise was simple and unusual. But then the convolutions start, the big revelation being that McAvoy's character's recollection of the crime and the reasons for it were not as he thought they were. The past is re-written in hindsight for his benefit as well as for our own. I suppose the film's intention is to have the audience gasping with the surprises, though I dare say that many people will have guessed the 'biggie' reveal before I did. I just found them increasingly irritating. It's yet another of the spate of films where reality and happenings in the mind are deliberately ambiguous or confused, a feature which has become a bit of a cliche now.
I found the fault of this film lies more with the writers than with Boyle himself, who can be guaranteed to provide slick direction, always with frenetic energy. He's one of those few directors who never bores me. But in this film he's going along with a storyline which I felt that even he was only half-convinced by. (There are, predictably, a number of very violent moments, though all very brief).

A bit of a disappointment, then. As I write this, the average score on IMDb site is 7.7, so clearly many others have a higher opinion of it than I have, my rating being a..................

Monday, 18 March 2013

Film: 'OZ - THE GREAT AND POWERFUL' (in 3D)

Feared I'd be giving this the thumbs down but it turned out that I really liked it.
Probably wouldn't have bothered if it hadn't been for the presence of James Franco who, though not everyone's idea of eye-candy, in my books works an alluring presence in any film - and he has such a beguiling smile too. 

A supposed prequel to you-know-what (which has, incidentally, never had particularly great appeal for me) this film depicts the arrival of the self-absorbed Wizard in that land - which has been long anticipated by its inhabitants - and the meeting and confrontation with three sister-witches, one of whom is transformed into the Wicked Witch of the West in the story that we all know. Through his battles the Wizard is torn between revealing that he is, in reality, not the omnipotent figure everyone expects him to be, and trying to maintain the illusion that he is indeed this all-powerful figure for as long as possible. The film only gets saccharine-heavy at two or three points, notably in the closing moments, but pleased to say that otherwise sentiment is kept largely at bay.  

I thought the 3D special effects were outstanding and are exactly what a fantasy like this needs. Performances were all good. Story also pretty good but the biggest let-down for me was the utterly banal script. Not one single witticism and not one memorable line. I'd have thought that the premise of this film would have cried out for self-regarding comments or (implied) winks at the camera  - particularly for the delectation of adults who are familiar with the 1939 film, though I am aware that for copyright reasons these film-makers had to tread very carefully in avoiding overt reference to the much earlier work (though we do get the Munchkins, flying monkeys - well, at least one of them - the Yellow Brick Road, the Emerald City as well as the aforementioned Wicked Witch). But I'd have thought there'd have been enough writers around to have come up with something to raise a knowing smile every now and then. If there were any, I missed them.

On the whole I certainly did enjoy it. Whether I'd feel the same if it were not for Franco's starring role or, even moreso, if I'd seen it in flat 2D, I can't say. All I can report is that in terms of my own satisfaction it earns a good ................7/10

Friday, 15 March 2013

Film: 'SIDE EFFECTS'

I was hoping for rather more than this film delivered, as director Soderbergh has said that this will be his final feature film - though he's only 50 years old and few people really believe him.
(I hear that his yet-to-be-released American TV film on Liberace, 'Behind the Candelabra', may be given a theatrical release in Britain. I do hope it does.)
'Side Effects' is especially regrettable coming, as it does, from the same director as his brilliant 'Traffic' (2000).

 
Jude Law plays a doctor who takes as his patient a depression-prone young married woman who has apparently just made a suicide attempt.  The drug he prescribes her seems to have an unforeseen catastrophic consequence in causing her to carry out an horrific, sudden killing which she doesn't recall doing. Court case ensues revolving around whether or not she was of sound mind, which reveals Law's part in providing her with the causal drug after which, because of publicity, his reputation becomes toxic and his partners wish to disassociate themselves from him to save themselves from also going under. He, meanwhile, is determined to satisfy himself as to the 'true' cause of his patient's horrific action and to prove his innocence, while all the while his own marriage cracks up under the pressure.
Jude Law is competent enough while Catherine Zeta-Jones, as the patient's former doctor, does her steely-resolved, duplicitous, ice-queen act again - which, I find, is always a pleasure to watch.

While I can accept the almost constant sepia-tinted look of the film I don't know why it was necessary to make nearly all the indoor scenes so dimly lit, giving it an air of melodrama, enough of which was already in the script.
But the really big downer for me was, about three-quarters way through, there's an interesting twist which sheds a new perspective on all what has gone before. But, instead of just going along with this the film meanders further into increasingly unlikely plot development to the point where, for me, all credibility finally snapped. It became almost risible whereas, truth to tell, up to that point it had been pretty good - and the aforementioned 'twist' was a promising and intriguing one - though for some reason the scriptwriter thought that that wasn't sufficient even though it had been.

It's a film of miscalculation and missed opportunity. As I say, 75% of it is worth watching but I do think that the last half hour or so devalues what we'd seen up to that point.

Overall, then, for 'curiosity value' it earns from me a.......5.5



Monday, 11 March 2013

Film: 'ARBITRAGE'


Reasonably absorbing tale of high-finance shenanigans coupled with the attempted cover up of an accidental death - made more watchable by the rare big-screen presence of Richard Gere (a late substitute for Al Pacino, I read) and the even rarer and doubly welcome appearance of Tim Roth who does his slovenly act so well. Add to these two the marvellous Susan Sarandon and it's a strong cast.





Gere plays a smooth-veneered, commercial big-flyer, owning a business in which he's done some shady dealings. Not only is this his big secret which he needs to keep a lid on but a huge complication arises when, driving his young affair, the car overturns and she is killed. (This is not really a 'spoiler' as it happens early on in the film)  He now finds himself in the double bind of additionally needing to keep the fact of his having been the driver from his deceived wife, and this provides the momentum for much of the film's subsequent developments. Tim Roth, excellent as always (those hang-dog eyes!), plays the detective who suspects the truth, trying to nail the slippery Gere character.

Even though my own qualification is in finance (though not commercial) and I used to be accountant, I was quickly lost on the intricacies of the financial dealings but I didn't feel it was a great loss. (Yes, I too had to look up the film's probably unwise title in the dictionary.)

Not bad entertainment all round and by no means a waste of time, especially with these players in the three leading roles.................6.5











Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Film: 'MEA MAXIMA CULPA - Silence in the House of God'

A documentary reporting the Roman Catholic Church's record of not bringing child-abusing priests to account, both within the Church itself as well as its failure and reluctance to notify national and local police and judicial authorities.
It's a film to make any reasonable-minded person yell with anger, weep with frustration and, more than once, just laugh aloud at the sheer pig-headed stubborness at Church authorities preferring to turn a blind eye, particularly in the Vatican itself - not to mention the personal connivances of Popes John Paul II (shortly to be elevated to 'sainthood', should he work the necessary single miracle required - but I'm quite confident he'll oblige. This requirement has probably already been achieved many times over!) ) as well as the collusion of Benedict XVI who, as Cardinal Ratzinger, was appointed as 'paedophile-investigator-in-chief '.


It's only a few days since I became aware of this film and immediately wanted to see it, but knowing that it would never get a nationwide release, had resigned myself to its being shown on a single screen somewhere unreachable in London, after which it would probably disappear - and perhaps show up in the middle of the night on some satellite TV channel. So you can imagine my surprise on finding that it had been booked for just two screenings in nearby Brighton. So today I went, and was reassured to see that it was well-attended too.




The principal focus of this documentary is on St John's School for Deaf Boys, Milwaukee, and the abuse of around 200 boys by just one resident priest, Father Lawrence Murphy (above), starting in the 1950s and continuing at least up to the 1970s. A few of the surviving boys (now, of course, considerably advanced in years) tell of their experiences in sign-language (voiced over by some celebrities -  Ethan Hawke, Chris Cooper and others) such as when Murphy used to regularly creep into the dormitory at night and select a boy to masturbate. During daylight hours he'd even commit the act in the confessional during confession - the partition 'window' being usefully wider than normal so that he could read their sign-language - or, later, in a closet, which he kept especially for that purpose. (Many years later, after admitting his behaviour, he justified his conduct as 'helping' the boys by getting them to manifest their natural urges! - "All boys do it!") His victims talk of their exasperation at their failure in getting nuns (working at the school at the time), other priests there, and even their own parents to believe them. On those very rare occasions where Murphy was confronted his vociferous denials were accepted as sufficiently incontrovertible proof that the boys must have been inventing malicious stories about him.

Then the film widens out into child abuse by R.C. priests generally, the dragging of feet by cardinals (if they do anything at all) when told of certain of their number - while the number of targets of complaints grows and grows - and of the Church authorities doing all they can to prevent such stories getting out, requiring victims to sign legal documents that they will never again accuse the perpetrators or defame the Church's hierarchy , on pain of excommunication - which used to be a really big deal in former days, thankfully much less so now.

It details how corruption in this respect goes all the way up to the Papal institution itself and with at least one paedophile cardinal within the then Cardinal Ratzinger's own circle. When challenged about this cardinal's employment, as Ratzinger is about to get into his limousine, his benign, avuncular mask slips, his smile rapidly fading as he tetchily tells off the reporter that he can't talk about it now - while his furious face says "How dare you mention it!"  So when then? .......

One of the things that constantly baffles me is seeing the many thousands of pilgrims and worshipers in St Peter's Square, ecstatic tears of devotion running down their cheeks at being in the presence of such a 'Holy Man of God'. I can't help wondering if their faith would be as unstinting if one of their own young relatives, perhaps their very own child, had been abused by a priest, and the offender then allowed to slip, scot-free, into obscurity or, worse, continue as before as though nothing had happened. I can only think that they are incapable of contemplating the dreadful possibility that their Church could ever do anything wrong. That would call into question their whole belief structure and mean that they themselves had been mistaken, for probably their entire lives - just too awful to think about!

One of the most nauseating facts in this film was hearing that when the above Fr Murphy, ailing and inconspicuously retired by the Church into a remote country location, with one faithful female housekeeper (from that same deaf school), he hears that finally and unbelieveably he might actually be called to give an account of his conduct by the Vatican (due to unceasing pressure and publicity) he writes Ratzinger an obsequious letter pleading to be allowed to live out the remaining time of his priesthood quietly and with dignity(!) - and, hey presto, the case against him is dropped - another miracle!. He drops dead shortly afterwards - in a gambling casino.

It seems the only thing that gets the Vatican moving to bring the perpetrators to justice (though only before the Church's own canon law) is not so much sympathy for the victims of abuse, despite their maintaining it, but the fact of the crippling expense of having to settle so many claims for damages with all its related dire publicity. It's crystal-clear that the Church authorities have far, far more compassion for the abusers than the victims. In fact their whole attitude is that though such happenings were 'regrettable', it really is time to move on now, and as quickly and quietly as possible - while keeping fingers crossed that both victims and abusers will speedily die off (though I think it be wishful thinking to suppose that it's not still going on right now).
The comment is made that those parts of the globe where the R.C. Church is currently growing strongest is in the developing regions of Africa and Latin America, societies which would find it hard to accept that such activity could ever take place, but even if it does it's more of an American and European phenomenon. If the next Pope comes from one of these third-world areas I shouldn't be at all surprised to see that same attitude reflected among his first pronouncements and instalments of Papal Bull

I can actually still see and comprehend the mindset of the Church in refusing to accept that its own institution could possibly be at fault in having given arise to these sets of circumstances. Certainly when I was being educated in the 1950s and 60s, criticism of the Church was considered to be absolutely beyond the pale. Stealing, adultery, even murder, could all be forgiven through sincere repentance of the 'sinner' - but to attack the Holy Mother Church was a wanton, violent act against the body of Jesus Christ himself! There could hardly be anything more serious, short of assassinating His one true representative on earth, the Holy Father.  

This is a film which is maddening, sickening and yet sometimes bleakly funny. Would that everyone could see it - though I fear that the vast majority of the audience will already be among the 'converted' (if I may use that word in this context). For those who find the very thought of the R.C. Church ever being in error as too horrific, well, they aren't even going to give this film the slightest chance of being heard. Great pity.

(Because of the nature of this film, which is hardly an 'entertainment', I'll refrain from giving it any score).