An Education (2009)

An Education.jpg

If people die the moment that they graduate, then surely it’s the things we do beforehand that count.  In early Sixties London, Jenny Mellor (Carey Mulligan) is a teen with a bright future; she’s smart and pretty and her parents (Cara Seymour and Alfred Molina) want a good life for her so encourage her aspirations of attending Oxford University.  But when David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard), a charming but much older suitor, motors into her life in a shiny maroon Bristol, Jenny gets a taste of adult life that she won’t soon forget and it puts everything she’s been working for in jeopardy… Nick Hornby adapted the memoir of Lynn Barber, that acerbic Times columnist, who revealed the shocker of her youth:  her underage romance with a colleague of Peter Rachman, the slum landlord.  David tells Jenny the ‘stats’ he and his mate Danny (Dominic Cooper) haunt are the little old ladies who move out of their flats and sell them for half nothing once the guys move coloureds in next door. She’s just wise enough not to be wholly shocked. She loves everything French and sings Juliet Greco songs and colludes with David in deceiving her parents so that she can lose her virginity to him in Paris.  The beauty of the screenplay is its deadpan humour: she marvels after that episode that all those love songs and poems are written about something that doesn’t last that long. It’s this oblique commentary that saves it from becoming sordid. Her friendship with Helen (Rosamund Pike), Danny’s  gloriously dim but kind and beautiful girlfriend, provides some of the wonderfully observed high points but Jenny conveniently ignores all the signs that something is wrong with this perfect picture. The concerned English teacher Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams) who acts as the conscience of the piece turns out to be a mentor of sorts in a stirring coming of age story that is a far from sentimental education. Emma Thompson as the anti-semitic headmistress is a piece of work – she expels Jenny when she learns she’s engaged to a Jew. It’s beautifully handled and performed and London looks just as it should, courtesy of John de Borman’s cinematography. Directed by Lone Scherfig.

Advertisements

The Constant Gardener (2005)

The Constant Gardener.jpg

This is one we can save.  Assigned to a new post, reserved British diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) relocates to Kenya with his new wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz), an activist for social justice. She is engaged on a hunt for the people behind a Big Pharma test of a dangerous AIDS drug being conducted on expendable local TB sufferers.  Her own child is born dead in an African hospital and a young girl in a neighbouring bed dies after taking the drug. When Tessa is found murdered out in the wilderness, circumstances point to her friend, Dr. Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Koundé), who has been agitating for the truth with her, but it is soon clear that he’s not the killer. Grief-stricken and angry, Justin sets out to uncover who is responsible for Tessa’s murder and in the process, he unearths some disturbing revelations – including that some of his cohorts in Government might be behind it. He also really discovers the woman he married … John le Carré is a remarkable novelist:  for five decades he has been writing books that point the finger through the prism of genre and in the Noughties he decided to take aim at the self-appointed God-like pharmaceutical companies that dominate so much of contemporary existence – and survival – and the countries whose internecine deals allow them to kill their own at will. Jeffrey Caine does a great job at filleting the story so it’s clear who the bad guys are – there are degrees of grotesquery here and it’s certainly not kind on African savagery either. A horrifying tale of corruption that, knowing its author, is all too true. Terrifically performed by the leads with good support from Bill Nighy, Pete Postlethwaite and Danny Huston. Directed by Fernando Meirelles. No drug company does something for nothing.

Stranger Than Fiction (2006)

Stranger Than Fiction.jpg

I may well be dead – just not typed.  IRS auditor Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is a pernickety type who lives by the time on his wristwatch. When he hears the voice of author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) in his head  he thinks he’s going crazy but then discovers that he is the ill-fated protagonist of her latest novel.  While Eiffel’s assistant Penny Escher (Queen Latifah) tries to cure the author’s case of writer’s block, Harold and a professor of literary theory Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) set out to find the woman and make her change her story from tragedy to comedy.  Meanwhile, Harold falls for one of his delinquent auditees, baker and Harvard Law dropout Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and wants to do something meaningful with his life. It’s essential to ensure that Eiffel doesn’t let him die but when Hilbert reads the book he declares it’s her masterpiece and Harold simply must succumb to her ending … Quirky, funny rumination on protagonists, motivation, narration, literary theory and (accidents of) fate – with Ferrell playing low-key to the point of diffidence and Thompson practically persecuted when she realises she is writing about a real living person and has the power to control him – the problem is, all her subjects die.  Great jokes about academia and storytelling (‘little did he know’ is the omniscient phrase that gives away to Hilbert that Harold is sane!). This may come off as a lesser iteration of Charlie Kaufman or even Woody Allen but it’s charming and funny – and cleverer than thou.  Written by Zach Helm and directed by Marc Forster.

The Reader (2008)

The Reader.jpg

Go to your literature, go to the theatre if you want catharsis. Don’t go to the camps. Germany, 1958.  Fifteen-year old Michael Berg (David Kross) meets thirtysomething tram conductor Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) when he falls ill with scarlet fever and she comes to his aid. Months later he visits her to thank her and she seduces him. They meet regularly and their relationship is passionate. She insists that he read books to her during their meetings. Reading first. Sex afterwards.  When Hanna abruptly moves away without informing him, Michael is heartbroken. Years later, while studying law at Heidelberg University, he is shocked to discover that Hanna is on trial for a brutal Nazi war crime when he is sent to observe a case at court. She admits to something that will incriminate her and ensure life imprisonment rather than say she is actually illiterate. She became a prison guard to hide her problem. What would you have done? Michael withholds the crucial information that could minimise her sentence. Ten years later he (Ralph Fiennes) is divorced and unhappy. His daughter lives with his ex and he has nothing much to do with his family.  He records cassettes of himself reading books and sends them to Hanna in prison.  She teaches herself to read using his recordings alongside books from the prison library. Then Michael is phoned by the prison as he is Hanna’s only contact to be told she is due to be released and needs to re-enter society … Bernhard Schlink’s semi-autobiographical novel Der Vorleser was watercooler stuff, the book you had to read a decade and a half ago. In an era suffused with simplistic youth-oriented dystopic nonsense and wizardry it was water in the desert, a book that had historic relevance and contemporary resonance in a society still gripped by the Nazis who were and are still living, still unrepentant. When Michael asks Hanna what she learned in her prison term she states bluntly, I learned to read. Winslet may have received the acting honours but the role is narrow, her character’s intelligence limited, her grasp of anything finite beyond a certain native shrewdness. Everything is transactional, even degeneracy. It is Fiennes who has to retain and expose the devastating effect their relationship has had on his life, as a son, a husband and father. He is also the adult lawyer living with the knowledge that his generation has been mainly unmarked by the failure of the German state.  Yet somehow his sexual adventure has created an incriminating situation for him akin to guilt.  Kross is equally good as the boy initiated into the wonders of sex with a woman who gets him to repeat the reading ritual that Jews were forced to perform for her at Auschwitz. The irony that they have both introduced each other to vastly differing worlds ricochets through his adult life. Her shame concerns illiteracy, not complicity in murder:  this is the crux of the narrative. She will not dwell in the past. It is a metaphor too far for some perhaps but it makes sense when you consider the ease with which Germany rebuilt itself with former Nazis running everything, an arrangement blessed by the former Allies, a fact erased from most people’s consciousness. That is why I believe so many critics hated this film:  we are all complicit in Germany’s overwhelming role in Europe today,  in permitting the Nazis to continue in another guise:  we are therefore no better than the Germans ourselves.  Linking this concept to an erotic coming of age story is daring and reminiscent of The Night Porter, another divisive work.  Michael did not go to his father’s funeral, his mother says.  We infer that his father’s role in World War Two was beyond the pale, at least for him. Things remain unspoken. This is a complex, emotionally powerful film with a problematic resolution that seeks to assuage several varieties of guilt without actually excusing anyone, understanding the accommodations necessitated by the quotidian. Adapted with acuity by David Hare, directed by Stephen Daldry and produced by Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack who both died during production. There’s an interesting score by Nico Muhly and Bruno Ganz’s performance as the law professor with Lena Olin as a Jewish camp survivor (and her mother) rounding out the impressive cast in a troubling and carefully constructed moral tale.

How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003)

How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.jpg

I’m going to make you wish you were deadComposure magazine advice columnist Andie Anderson (Kate Hudson) really wants to write about important things like politics but she’s under editorial pressure. She tries pushing the boundaries of what she can do in her new piece about how to get a man to leave you in 10 days after best friend Michelle (Kathryn Hahn) has yet another breakup. Her editor Lana (Bebe Neuwirth), loves it. Advertising executive Ben Berry (Matthew McConaughey) is so confident in his romantic prowess that he thinks he can make any woman fall in love with him and makes a bet with his boss in time for the company ball in 10 days. If he manages it he’ll get the contract for a new diamond company.  His in-house rivals Judy and Judy (Michael Michele and Shalom Harlow) set Ben up to meet Andie after they learn of Andie’s project at a magazine conference. When Andie and Ben wind up meeting their plans backfire and they do everything they can to meet their targets …  You think you know what you’re getting with a battle of the sexes comedy – after all we’ve been here before with some of the screwball greats. However where this falls down in between some very bright comedic action is ironically in the dialogue which has a vicious undertow but isn’t the consistently witty banter we want. Then there’s the meet the family stuff which underscores the sentimental base. Nonetheless Hudson is good as the smart as hell writer with her wicked conniving schemes and that glint in her eye. There’s excellent support including from her Le Divorce co-stars Neuwirth and Thomas Lennon, who’s one of Ben’s entourage. The ending is too sappy by half! This is an adaptation of Michele Alexander and Jeanie Long’s self-help book by Burr Steers, Kristen Buckley and Brian Regan. Directed by Donald Petrie who’s been around the romcom block.

Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009)

Confessions_of_a_Shopaholic.jpg

They said I was a valued customer now they send me hate mail! Rebecca Bloomwood (Isla Fisher) loves to shop. The trouble is, she shops so much that she is drowning in debt. She dreams of working at the city’s top fashion magazine Alette run by the accented dragon lady   (Kirstin Scott Thomas) but, so far, has not been able to get her foot in the door. Then she lands a job as an advice columnist for a financial magazine owned by the same company and run by the very attractive Luke Brandon (Hugh Dancy). Her pseudonymous column (The Girl in the Green Scarf) becomes an overnight success, but her secret threatens to ruin her love life and career as the man she describes to her boss as her stalker is actually a debt collector and her best friend and roommate Suze (Krysten Ritter) suspects she is not really attending meetings of Shopaholics Anonymous … Sophie Kinsella’s first two Shopaholic novels get a NYC makeover here and if the plot runs out of steam towards the conclusion you can’t say they don’t give it the old college try. Fisher is fantastically effervescent as the very winning protagonist – when she convinces herself of the joys of shopping at her addicts’ group and runs out to – yup, shop! – you practically cheer. It’s a frothy look at addiction if that’s possible with some very persuasive scenes to those of us who might have succumbed to that jacket in, uh, every colour.  Screenplay by Tracey Jackson, Tim Firth and Kayla Alpert and directed with exuberance by P. J. Hogan who knows how to make a rockin’ girls’ movie. Will the real Rebecca Bloomwood please stand up?! Bright, breezy and a lot of fun.

Last Holiday (2006)

Last_holiday.jpg

I’m just gonna blow it. Diagnosis of a terminal brain condition prompts introverted saleswoman Georgia Byrd (Queen Latifah) to reflect on what she realizes has been an overly cautious life where the biggest thrill is singing in a choir. Her health plan won’t cover treatment. She withdraws her life savings and jets off to Europe – first class, to a top hotel outside Prague – where she lives like a millionaire for the last three weeks of her life during the Christmas holiday. Upbeat and passionate, she charms everybody she meets, including renowned Chef Didier (Gérard Depardieu). The only one missing from her new life in which her luck suddenly seems to be changing and her fortunes paradoxically altering for the better is her longtime crush Sean Matthews (LL Cool J) and then her medical report is reassessed … This is a remake of the J.B Priestley screenplay which was made in 1950 – starring Alec Guinness! That darkly ironic and witty piece of work is turned into something softer here with a sweetly endearing if occasionally sceptical turn by Latifah as Georgia. (It was originally meant for the late, great John Candy). The twist ending remains but in altogether more positive mode than the original. There’s a lot of fun living out Georgia’s last days doing death-defying winter sports and getting to know a pompous self-help writer. Certainly different from a trip to Dignitas…  Written by Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman and directed by Wayne Wang, who has a way with women.

The Invasion (2007)

The Invasion movie.jpg

Civilisation crumbles whenever we need it most. In the right situation, we are all capable of the most terrible crimes. To imagine a world where this was not so, where every crisis did not result in new atrocities, where every newspaper is not full of war and violence. Well, this is to imagine a world where human beings cease to be human.  In Washington, D.C. psychologist Dr. Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman) and her colleague Dr. Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig) are the only two people who are aware of an epidemic running rampant through the city. They discover an alien virus aboard a space shuttle that crashed during an unscheduled landing attempt that transforms anyone who comes into contact with it into unfeeling drones while they sleep. The government is calling it a flu virus. Carol realises her son Oliver’s (Jackson Bond) immune system holds the key to stopping the spread of the plague and she races to find him before it is too late but his father, politician ex-husband Tucker Kaufman (Jeremy Northam) has taken him out of state … The late great Jack Finney wrote some indelible sci fi that could be used to anatomise and exemplify social forces – so The Body Snatchers has had meaning for generation after generation, commencing with its first (quite brilliant) movie adaptation Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This is the fourth effort and its muddled birth in some ways tarnished its critical reputation.  Written variously by David Kajganich and the uncredited Wachowski brothers/sisters and directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel with uncredited reshoots by James McTeigue, the original story’s clarity is both lost and highlighted in its city setting:  the quick slide into conformity is more obvious than in the 1956 classic simply because there are so many more people whose transformation is visible on the streets.  The central irony – that a woman controlling her patients’ minds and feelings with pharmaceuticals is now objecting to a world in which by the icky expedient of vomiting on someone’s face or into their coffee (nice) everyone can live in peace minus their individuality or expressivity – is straightforwardly verbalised by Carol’s ex. But the quick running time and the conclusion – collective amnesia, luckily administered Governmentally with yet another vaccine – means the bigger picture of mind control by Big Pharma and Bigger Government (a nasty coinciding of socio-financial interests since, oh, the 1990s?) is sort of lost in a mish-mash of action with awkward acting compounding the stiff plotting. There is one really silly flash forward. Metaphor? Metonymy? How would I know? I am on Day 30 of Aussie flu and can’t get a shot to save my sniffles. But if I said I was depressed they’d be racing to inoculate, n’est-ce pas???…!!! Uneven, but relevant.

 

Ice Bound (2003) (TVM)

Ice Bound TVM.jpg

In twelve months there is just one sunrise and one sunset. It’s the end of 1999 and Dr Jerri Nielsen (Susan Sarandon) moves to a new job – working at the Amundsen-Scott station at the South Pole: she makes a poor impression on new colleagues when she expresses her shock at the number of people there – far more than she’d been warned. Then there’s the business of their nicknames. And being pushed to sort her recycling trash.  Winter is coming and all flights are cancelled – for eight months. Conditions can reach as low as 100 below zero.  Nielsen is herself responsible for the well-being of all the staff there and slowly comes to a kind of collegial relationship with others despite being pranked. She carries out a biopsy on herself and finds out via satellite link to doctors back home that she has an aggressive form of cancer and requires chemotherapy.   Risking death, rescuers heroically air-drop the necessary supplies to the station and, along with the help of fellow Polies, including close friends Big John Penny (Aidan Devine) and Claire ‘Fingers’ Furinski (Cynthia Mace), Nielsen begins her debilitating chemotherapy treatments… This true story is a resonant piece of work with a standout performance in the lead by Sarandon who narrates. As her condition develops, her uptight character thaws out, helped by her growing appreciation of the landscape – she never knew that there were three kinds of twilight.  Of course what she is really discovering is herself. Adapted by Peter Pruce and Maria Nation from Nielsen’s autobiography co-written with Maryanne Vollers, Ice Bound:  A Woman’s Survival at the South Pole. Distinguished by the use of Sarah McLachlan’s Angel on the soundtrack. Efficiently handled by Roger Spottiswoode even if the location shoot on Lake Ontario might betray a low-ish budget.

The Others (2001)

TheOthers.jpg

Mummy you’re letting the light in. Grace (Nicole Kidman) is the devoutly religious mother of Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley). She moves her family to the Channel Islands in 1945. She awaits word on her husband who’s gone missing in WW2 while protecting the children from a rare photosensitivity disease that causes the sun to harm them. Curtains shroud the windows throughout the huge house.  Three new servants arrive, stating that they are very familiar with the place as they worked there years before: Bertha Mills (Fionnula Flanagan), Edmund Tuttle (Eric Sykes) and mute girl Lydia (Elaine Cassidy).  When Anne claims she sees ghosts, Grace initially thinks that the servants are playing tricks but chilling events and visions make her believe something supernatural has occurred and Bertha warns of intruders returning … Owing something of its origins to James’ The Turn of the Screw (which was previously directly adapted as the brilliant The Innocents) this original work by Spanish writer/director Alejandro Amenabar was undoubtedly inspired by the success of The Sixth Sense, another example of visual and narrative sleight of hand but nonetheless has its own particular brand of the uncanny. Unless you’re looking for particular breadcrumbs to follow you don’t see them until you work backwards after the twist ending which is carefully built:  this is a masterclass in control. From the Gothic concept, the empty rooms, the lack of food, the nature of the interactions, the fog encasing the mansion, the graveyard, the clues are there, but Grace is wilfully ignoring them until an unexpected intervention that includes a boy called Victor. Kidman’s performance really holds us in the suspension of disbelief that the story requires – tearful, gutsy, protective, guilty, scared, she plays a gamut of emotions while being terrified in this spooky house where she locks every single door to keep her children safe.  This is a very satisfying thriller with there being no question of feeling conned because the mood is perfectly sustained … No one can make us leave this house.