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En kongelig affære (2012)
More than a history lesson
You could dismiss this film as a Danish history lesson but it is more than that. It is a love story with an improbable background in a rather gloomy setting, the Danish Court of the late 18th century. Mad (or at least seriously disturbed) King Christian VII (Mikkel Folsgaard - superbe) marries 16 year old English princess Caroline (Alicia Vikander) who happens to be George III's sister). He prefers the company of his dog and mistress to her. It is not surprising that Caroline falls for Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) who becomes the king's personal physician on the strength of his knowledge of Shakespeare (especially Hamlet). The king is, as they say, easily led, and for a year or so Sturensee, despite being German, has a fine time as de facto ruler enacting liberal measures such as the abolition of serfdom and the repeal of censorship laws, not to mention free smallpox inoculations. But the forces of reaction led by the king's stepmother gather. It was surprising to learn that 18th century Denmark was such a backward society.
Mads Mikkelsen gives a nuanced performance 'quiet intensity' in fact, and Alicia Vikander is equally intense. They are a serious couple imbued with the ideals of the 18th century Enlightenment but their passion is physical as well as intellectual. Unfortunately their ideals are a little advanced for Denmark of the 1770s despite support from writers such as Voltaire. The local book-burners led by Hoegh-Guldberg (David Dencik) are not swayed by argument of course.
The production is full of atmosphere. The castles are suitably gloomy and there's plenty of medieval squalor beyond the castle gate. Much of the action takes place in winter which adds to the chilly atmosphere. The aristocracy are suitably heartless and the peasants downtrodden. The king provides some zany (if not quite authentic) moments, appointing his Great Dane to his council and ordering Struensee to make Caroline a "fun queen".
This is quite a long movie at 140 minutes yet is enthralling from start to finish. Even though you can guess the ending you are swept along by the story and the performances. You can see why the audiences at Cannes loved it.
The Artist (2011)
A silent for today
This is a very cunning piece of work- original only in its audacity- a tribute to the silent era in the shape of a silent movie about the era's end. What Michel Haznaravicius has done is to re-arrange the clichés of the early pictures to produce a film perfectly watchable by today's audience. The Academy went overboard and gave it five Oscars (best movie, director, costume, music and actor) but, hey, this is a movie for those who love movies. Apparently it cost $15 million to make and was filmed in 37 days, recovering nearly three times that at the American box office alone. Being silent (apart from the rich musical soundtrack) it should do pretty well in non-English speaking markets as well.
The artist himself, George Valetin (Jean Dujardin, made for the part), is a combination of Douglas Fairbanks senior and Errol Flynn (the latter of course did not start in movies until the early thirties). Handsome, dashing and acclaimed, as his career tanks with the advent of talkies, he finds refuge in the bottle. Meanwhile his one-time fan Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) prospers in the new medium, especially in song and dance.
Silents were a repository of family values and this is reflected here I don't remember seeing more than a chaste kiss between George and Peppy. Supporting characters like James Cromwell as George's faithful chauffeur inhabit familiar roles. One thing this movie does not have is a baddie - no damsel in distress tied to the train tracks. John Goodman (delightful as always) the cigar chomping studio head is merely recognising the inevitable in laying off George who himself proves the point by producing a spectacular box office failure. Incidentally, it is the Wall St crash which wipes out George financially though his production failure would not have helped.
What this film does superbly is put today's viewers in the seats of the silent cinema. ("Silent" is something of a misnomer since the showing was usually accompanied by music, though not usually as elaborate as here) As a time capsule this film is near perfect and no special knowledge is needed to understand it. We are kept enthralled despite suspecting we might be in for an upbeat ending. The whole thing is well done. Maybe there was more drama in the Descendants, but Oscar did at least recognise here the superb production values an Artist's film indeed.
Les femmes du 6ème étage (2010)
cheerful class comedy
Set in the Parisian upper middle class mileu in the 1960s.Jean-Louis, a stuffy middle aged stockbroker's life is transformed when he becomes involved with the bright and cheerful Spanish maids resident in the top floor of his Apartment block. The maids are all from poverty-stricken backgrounds, all with different reasons to be domestics. Maria the youngest is soon the object of Jean Louis' desire, a serious matter to Jean Louis' wife who throws him out, allowing him to move to a tiny storeroom on the sixth floor. Jean-Louis realises he has a room of his own for the first time in his life. The other maids are generally accepting of Jean Louis as they are of each other. In fact they are very much a mutual support group a veritable family, in fact.
This was a bright and cheerful film, with a little social commentary at the fringes. The atmosphere in the stockbrokers office compares very unfavourably with that of the sixth floor. Jean Louis 's wife attitudes change but rather late in the day. This film perhaps could be entitled the liberation of Jean-Louis since it he who breaks free, but the social changes of the 60s are all around.
All the minor characters are superbly drawn, the ghastly concierge, the two toffy-nosed children, the office minions and of course the maids themselves. Set in 1962, but the class issues are still with us today though the maids are more likely to be African than Spanish
The Iron Lady (2011)
Inside the iron lady
Margaret Thatcher was the first woman prime minister of Great Britain (1979-1990) and probably one of the more divisive. The grocer's daughter was a professional politician from her early thirties after a brief spell as a barrister specialising in tax, a senior minister in the Heath conservative government (1970-74) then leader of the conservatives in opposition from 1975 before becoming Prime Minister in 1979.
This movie is not an account of the iron lady's career, but is a character study through a kind of interior monologue, as, in the grip of old age, she recalls her tumultuous career. The design of the film means that the casting of Maggie Thatcher is crucial and Meryl Streep rarely misses a beat (the young Maggie is also played well by Alexandra Roach). The scenes of Maggie in her dotage are particularly effective, though I could have done with rather less of them, and more about her career. Meryl has the voice pitch perfect, given that it changed from high pitched to a more authoritative growl as she climbed the greasy pole that is British national politics. Meryl also captures the gait and the body language it's a quite remarkable performance. The ghostly Denis (he died in 2003) is also superbly played by Jim Broadbent, though he seems a good deal more whimsical than the real Denis.
It was said of Margaret Thatcher that she was the only man in her cabinet and there was no doubting her political courage. Her senior colleagues, played by a galaxy of fine British actors, are not a prepossessing bunch, apart perhaps from her mentor Airey Neave (Nicholas Farrell), tragically killed by an IRA bomb. Her embrace of monetarist economics and antipathy to unions had some destructive consequences, but she changed the face of British politics. The film does not really deal with her policies except perhaps to trace their origins in her background and upbringing (her father the grocer was involved in local body politics). The Falklands war of 1982 does get some screen time, but mainly to make the point that she personally authorised the sinking of the Argentine cruiser "General Belgrano", with the loss of 500 lives.
Margaret Thatcher still lives, an infirm old lady of 86, and is not likely to see the film, but it is interesting how such a self-righteous person as she was might see her life in retrospect. The film gives us one possible answer. According to his memoirs, John Howard as prime minister of Australia (1996-2007) admired Thatcher as a conviction politician but was a good deal more politically astute in implementing his conservative agenda. But he also stayed too long, and lost government and his seat in 2007. Thatcher's nemesis, covered in the film, was the poll tax idea, which she could not see was profoundly inequitable. It was ironic that as a former tax practitioner she forgot that ability to pay has to be at the basis of sensible taxation.
Midnight in Paris (2011)
Love outflanks Nostalgia
This was a movie both frivolous and serious a profound fantasy. You might say a typical Woody Allen movie, but this one is one of his better attempts at serio-romantic comedy. Gil (Owen Wilson) is a Woody Allen avatar as he explores two themes, nostalgia and the meaning of love. Gil, a Hollywood screen writer who hankers to be a novelist is engaged to Inez (Rachel McAdam) but when they go to Paris with her parents Gil starts having doubts, fuelled by contact with various famous literary figures of Paris in the 20's who magically appear to Gil as he walks the streets after midnight. F Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Cole Porter (Yves Heck), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) and numerous others all put in an appearance, most of them surprisingly ready to help Gil with his novel and his love life.
Obviously you have to suspend your disbelief here but the portrayals of these figures by various actors, though uneven, mostly ring true. Gil may well have been dreaming but he finds that the "golden age" of Paris in the twenties is not necessarily better than today "nostalgia ain't what it used to be", and that love is what conquers death.
Owen Wilson fits the Woody character like a glove, though Woody is not really a Hollywood hack writer. He is complemented by Marion Cotillard as Adriana, his guide through the twenties, from whom he learns about love.
There is a lot of fun along the way, and some minor characters to keep us entertained such as Paul (Michael Sheen) a know-all friend of the couple and a celebrity museum guide (Carla Bruni President Sarkozy's spouse). Paris is also a character, photogenic, and presented in strong light for the day bits and warm yellow tones after dark. The film will certainly not discourage tourism there, at least at the deluxe end of the market the hotels are 5 star and limos are everywhere. The scripts sparkles - Woody seeks to entertain as well as philosophise - and here he succeeds at both.
The Guard (2011)
Tale of an authentic Irish Hero
"Welcome to Connemara" says a roadside sign glimpsed from time to time in this entertaining movie, but this part of the west of Ireland is portrayed as being distinctly dangerous. Even prior to the opening titles there is a fatal road crash, and Guard (Irish policeman) Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) soon has a murder on his hands, a missing colleague and then a major drug- smuggling plot. In fairness to the locals the major criminals are imported, from England as well as from Dublin (almost as bad, in the opinion of the locals). Brendan is put on the case with an unlikely partner, a black American FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle), initial animosity gradually turning to mutual respect, but they are up against bent cops as well as the ruthless psychopaths (sorry, sociopaths) of the drug gang. Just to make things more difficult for B, his mother is dying. The denouement is satisfying but there is plenty of humour along the way to offset the tension.
Brendan Gleeson is just made for the part, a country cop whose rough manner belies a crafty brain honed by years of dealing with all the environment can throw at him. It is not surprising that he drops the occasional acid, is friendly with the local IRA operative, and consorts with call-girls (in mock police uniforms) on his day off. But he is not a crook, and like the Mounties, he gets his man. He also has a softer side, as we see in the scenes with his mother. He is helped by a very funny (if very profane) script. Some of it reminded me of "Pulp Fiction" where the crims while away car journeys by discussing literary and philosophical matters (eg was Bertrand Russell Welsh? Actually, he was born in Monmouthshire which is usually regarded as part of Wales, but his family were very upper class English).
The supporting cast has great fun with all of this. Initially Don Cheadle looks like a fish out of water, but by the end blends in nicely. Mark Strong as the chief baddie is hilarious ("you just can't get good help today"). I loved the part where he hands over some hush money to the cops, telling them exactly what it's for. Liam Cunningham as one of the Irish crooks was also authentically nasty, and the gang's chief psychopath is nicely played by Liam Wilmot.
A lot of the action seems to take place at night or in fog, which is not a great advertisement for the scenery of Connemara the various government bodies who put money into this film won't get much of a tourist dividend. There is something very Irish about the film nonetheless. "The Guard" is almost a mythical figure, a righter of wrongs from a long tradition of Irish heroes.
Crazy, Stupid, Love. (2011)
Rom-com with a few surprises
As the movie opens Cal Weaver's humdrum but comfortable life as an accountant in Beverly Hills is rudely shattered by his wife Emily (Julianne Moore announcing in a crowded restaurant that she's being having an affair with a workmate and wants a divorce after 25 years marriage. Cal (Steve Carell) moves out and drops in to the single bars scene where for reasons not entirely clear ("you remind me of someone") lounge room Lothario Jacob (Ryan Gosling) who beds a different gorgeous woman each night takes Cal in hand and trains him to be just as successful. Meanwhile Cal's 13 old son Robby (Johna Bobo) has fallen in love with the family's babysitter, High School student Jessica (Analeigh Tipton) who in turn has a crush on Cal. Then Jacob actually falls in love, with young lawyer Hanna (Emma Stone) and Emily starts to yearn for her discarded husband.
This all sounds like a conventional romantic comedy of the feel-good variety, but directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa and writer Dan Fogelman have a few surprises up their sleeves. The performances are first-rate and the dialogue crackling. There is some reliance on slapstick but also some real emotion conveyed. Ryan Gosling's Jacob might perhaps be too shallow to be true ("you look like you've been photoshopped" says Emily, on seeing his torso), but it turns out that even he has a credible backstory. As the principal lovers, Steve Carell and Julianne Moore exhibit a realism seldom seen in romantic comedy and there is some fine comic work from Maresa Tomei as one of Cal's lounge bar conquests who pops up a bit closer to home. At 120 minutes the film is slow in places I would describe the direction as quirky rather than slick (how else can one explain the cinematographer's penchant for shoe-level shots) but more rewarding than the average rom-com, and although the ending is contrived it's still satisfying.
The directors, whose best known previous works, "Bad Santa" and "I Love You Phillip Morris" were decidedly quirky, have toned things down a bit here, but the characters are credible and sympathetic. I also liked the way the deep seated prudery and overdeveloped sense of decorum that afflicts middle class Americans are sent up. After an unseemly though perfectly understandable brawl in the Weaver's picture perfect back yard it falls to Vietnamese-American Officer Huang to tell the warring parties to do their fighting inside where the neighbours can't hear. I also liked Cal's line as he is rejected again by Emily outside Robbies' high school after a disastrous parent teacher interview and it starts to rain: "This is such a cliché". Well I suppose anyone going to see a rom-com ought to be prepared for clichés, but here they are cleverly handled, if a little sugar-coated.
One Day (2011)
A growing older movie
One Day Two eighties graduates in Edinburgh have an encounter on graduation day, July 15th ; the film follows their relationship by annual updates. Dexter (Jim Sturgess) brilliant, charismatic and a total narcissist and Emma (Ann Hathaway), a demure, warm sort are not a great match and both hitch up with others, but their friendship endures.
The film is romantic, but only to a point, and can hardly be described as a comedy; there is too much pain for that, despite some funny dialogue. It is a kind of growing older movie early promise turning sour, bright young ambitious things tasting failure and settling for something less. The story is cleverly told and nicely shot, with good support from Ken Stott and Patricia Clarkson as Dexter's disapproving parents and Rhys Spall as Emma's husband. Jim Sturgess looks and acts uncannily like a younger Rupert Graves, who has portrayed a long line of charming handsome wastrels. Ann Hathaway might be from New York but she plays Emma perfectly the dialect coaches really earned their money. Both of the principals manage to evoke our sympathy, though Sturgess has the harder job.
July 15 is St Swithin's day. On that day in 1415 the English Army led by Henry V (alias Laurence Olivier or Kenneth Branagh) defeated a larger French force at Agincourt. This has absolutely nothing to do with the movie though Dexter and Emma do at one stage venture to Brittany, where they manage to lose their clothes in one of the film's more comedic moments.
I couldn't help feeling the story arc was rather predictable but I was absorbed nonetheless. At the end I'm not sure what the attraction was for Emma she was smart enough to realise Dexter was a jerk but somehow she couldn't resist. He does get better perhaps deep down she wanted to reform him. Or perhaps deep down she wanted to be a bit wild too. A film for generation Xers who are wondering what the hell happened to their youthful dreams and plans.
Red Dog (2011)
Feelgood dog story
The interaction of animals and people is a source of endless fascination and this feel-good fable of a dogs's relationship with most of the residents of Dampier, a tough port town in the Pilbara region of north-west Australia, has a lot of charm. First there is the dog himself, a red kelpie with an amazing rapport with humans. Then there is some pitch-perfect acting from a good cast, fine cinematography making the most of the spectacular landscape, and a neat blend of comedy and drama "Crocodile Dundee" with a dog as the hero.
The film has a most unlikely provenance, as it is based on a novelisation by the rather literary English author Louis de Bernieres ("Captain Corellis'Mandolin") who came across the story of the legendary red dog of the Pilbara on a trip to Karratha, near Dampier, for a literary event. (The locals have erected a statue of Red Dog on the outskirts of Dampier). The film-makers have sanitised the story somewhat the real life "master" of Red Dog was not such a nice person as that played by Josh Lucas in the film, but they have effectively captured the atmosphere of a town where almost everyone was friends with a roaming Kelpie with a flatulence problem. It is the complete opposite of "Wake in Fright" with almost all the inhabitants of the hot and tough mining town being large-hearted, fair-minded blokes you'd be happy to have a beer with. Even Bill Hunter shows up in a very brief role as a survivor of a shark attack.
Although there was nothing wrong with the major players, John Batchelor was a stand-out as the mountainous Peeto. He was able to do tough-tender in perfect pitch. The dog, however, stole the show the "Greyfriars Bobby" of the Pilbara.
The story does have some sad bits and I noticed some seven and eight year olds crying at the end, but this is such a good-hearted story I wouldn't keep it from them. It does show that doggy devotion can bring out the best in people.
The Pilbara was the setting for an earlier comedy-tragedy in "Japanese Story" in 2003, and this film exploits the magnificent land scape to the same extent. Essentially this film is a piece of folklore, with the exploits of Red Dog given mythic proportions. He almost certainly didn't get to Japan, for instance, but Perth and Darwin were probably on his itinerary. It's nice to know this film has done well at the box office it doesn't patronise anyone, even cats.
The Eye of the Storm (2011)
A solid adaptation of Oz classic
Patrick White put Australia on the literary map by winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973, but his rich dense style did not make for a best-selling author. This film, an adaptation of White's novel, marks the first time anyone has succeeded in filming a White novel, though he wrote the screenplay for a curious piece directed by Jim Sharman, "The Night the Prowler" in 1977. Director Fred Schepisi said at the preview I attended that it was a challenge to film the allegedly unfilmable; if it had been easy it would have not been worth doing. Yet despite the style White was rather a theatrical author, and Judy Morris's screenplay accurately reflects White's mordant wit. His characters are acting their way through life and there is drama in almost every scene.
Old Mrs Elizabeth Hunter, widow of a wealthy grazier, is nearing the end of her days in some splendour in her Centennial Park, Sydney, mansion, and her two children have been summoned to her bedside. Her son Basil, once a leading actor on the London stage whose career is now in decline and her daughter Dorothy, the ex-wife of a minor French aristocrat, are motivated more by their possible inheritance than affection for the old lady. In fact Elizabeth inspires more affection in her nurses, solicitor and housekeeper than she does in her children. Dorothy in particular has cause to hate her mother, yet it is she who gets closer to her as the film progresses.
Schepisi manages to blend in the dark humour of the situation with the downbeat storyline. The cinemaphotograhy is gorgeous and the cutting, often without the usual establishment shots, wonderfully done, given the extensive use made of flashbacks you instantly realise where the characters are. The book's interior monologues often appear as a single image in a single screen. The casting is such as Geoffrey Rush mentioned at the preview that he could not refuse the very best of the Australian acting profession, though the pivotal role of Elizabeth Hunter is played with great panache by Charlotte Rampling. Rush plays Basil as a man who takes himself seriously, but can't persuade anyone else to. Judy Davis simmers as the disillusioned Dorothy , and John Gaden as Wyburd the family solicitor with a skeleton or to in his own cupboard is pitch perfect. Flora the day nurse, played by Schepsi's daughter Alexandra, is vividly realised, and there are good performances in minor roles also, including Helen Morse, unrecognisable, as Lotte the tragic housekeeper, and Colin Friels as a Labor politician on the make rather reminiscent of one Robert James Lee Hawke. The only odd casting decision is casting Melbourne locations as Sydney. Mrs Hunter's mansion is definitely not in Sydney and only a couple of brief scenes are shot in Centennial Park.
It has been opined that "The Eye of the Storm" is Patrick White in drag, and it is true that there are some obvious personal aspects to the story - there is a lot of White's mother in Mrs Hunter. Set as it is in the early 1970s in the declining old money grazier milieu, this film could be written off as a period piece. Yet Schepisi has managed to capture both the theme and atmosphere of the novel. The difficulties of dying have rarely been so well depicted on film. This may not be a box office smash, but it will appeal to anyone who likes a solid piece of film-making.