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"It's Complicated" is pretty simple, actually. Successful Californian
food store owner Meryl Streep has been happily divorced from her former
husband Alex Baldwin for the last ten years, but on a trip to New York
to attend their son's graduation, she starts an affair with him. He
happens to have re-married, to a younger woman, while she becomes
involved with her architect Steve Martin. Will Meryl and Alec get back
together again, or will she set off into the sunset with Steve. What
will the children think? Do we care?
Well, not a lot. The lifestyle depicted is one in which everything is perfect, especially the cast's complexions. There are no human imperfections depicted, unless you count lust. All the characters, with the partial exception of Meryl, are stereotypes people from Advertising land. In real life things are much more complicated.
That said, this is a superior piece of its type and it passes the watch test (I didn't look at my watch while viewing it). True, I could watch Meryl reading the phone book, and yes the dialogue was witty and the set pieces funny, and I had some guilty enjoyment from all the affluence. But really it was all too sweet, like Meryl's chocolate cake. Alex Baldwin does a passable LA lawyer while Steve Martin seems to be in the wrong movie.
This is a grim and gritty tale lightened somewhat by an upbeat ending.
Its origins as the first novel in the millennium series by Stieg
Larrson is evident in a somewhat meandering storyline and a running
time of two and a half hours, with the inevitable excisions from the
book. Nevertheless the film stands up well on its own.
Sweden seems to produce detectives at the end of their tethers, "Wallander" for example, and the protagonist here, Mikael a journalist, starts out facing three months in jail for defaming a shonky business tycoon. I thought criminal defamation was a thing of the past, but not it seems in Sweden. Mikael has been set up, but the case has brought him to the notice of Henrick Vander, the patriarch of an old industrial family, who commissions Mikael to investigate the disappearance of his favourite niece, who disappeared from the family's island retreat nearly 40 years ago. Mikael joins forces with the tiny but intimidating Lisbeth, an ace computer hacker with a dark past and an agenda of her own.
They soon discover that the Vander family, except for their client who is a nice old gent, are as about a dysfunctional a family as you might ever meet, on a par with the Essenbecks of Visconti's "The Damned". There are skeletons everywhere, not just in the closet. However Mikael and Lisbeth crack the case, after the usual quota of menacing moments and dashing around chasing red herrings and actual clues. Filmed in the midst of a Swedish winter the atmosphere is pretty gloomy, not to mention just plain cold.
Michael Nyqvist inhabits the role of Mikael pretty comfortably, spending quite a lot of time looking surprised, but Nooni Rapace as Lisbeth is something else again practically an elemental force never was someone so vulnerable and so dangerous at the same time.
Nit-pickers will be delighted to learn that in a short sequence set in outback northern Australia, Mikael's FWD has the correct licence plates and its steering wheel on the right. However the lighting was most peculiar and the sheep a bit out of place you mostly see cattle in northern Australia.
There are apparently two sequels in the pipeline, and despite some rather grisly moments I will line up to see them. Larrson, who died suddenly after producing three best-sellers, was a good storyteller and the film-makers have executed the adaptation with plenty of skill.
This is a chilly comedy, and that's not just because the location
filming was conducted mostly in the American mid-west in February 2009.
Being sacked is seldom funny and Jason Reitman's use of real victims of
the layoff process (along with some adroit actors) reveals some of the
real pain of "outplacement". George Clooney's character Ryan Bingham is
a master of the process. His company is hired by others all over the US
"too cowardly to do their own sacking" though given the ultra-litigious
American scene there is a lot to be said for employing an expert to do
the dirty work. Ryan's task as he sees it is to shepherd the victims on
to the next phase of their lives (and cut down the litigation). It
helps that he is a man without family commitments of his own who lives
out of his suitcase "up in the air" in the world of airports, hotels
and rental cars, his only serious life goal being the attainment of ten
million passenger miles with one of the better bits of product
placement seen recently, the trusty American Airlines (did anyone
notice the billboard at one airport with a photo of Captain Chesley
Sullenberger, hero of the Hudson River ditching on it?) The tension
here is provided by Ryan being forced to show the ropes to Natalie
(Anna Kendrick) an eager young beaver straight out of business school
who has given Ryan's smarmy boss Craig (Jason Bateman) the idea of
replacing road warriors with the internet. The romantic sparks are not
provided by her, but by Alex (Vera Farmiga), an older woman Ryan meets
in his travels, a road warrior like him, who seemingly has no
attachments either. Their affair blossoms, but, sorry folks, this isn't
that sort of comedy.
Rather, this is about as an intelligent piece of film-making Hollywood is capable of producing. Reitman's earlier movies, "Thank You For Not Smoking" and "Juno" were equally intelligent but here he has been able to create some depth of feeling, aided enormously by George Clooney's charm. He is exactly right for the part, and meshes perfectly with the beautiful Vera Famiga. I am at the stage of life where I find the likes of Natalie (a rollerblader, capable of going very fast in one direction) just plain annoying but I must admit Anna Kendrick does a good job to the extent that I almost feel sorry for her.
Reitman was lucky with his timing here as he filmed the US went into a financial crisis and slipped into recession. Millions have lost their jobs. As it happened, I watched the movie with my boss sitting just behind me. It was salutary to observe he was laughing at several points where I was not, but then again, I laughed at several points when there was silence from behind. Remember salary-men, their interests are not always yours.
Newspaper resident right-wing spleen merchants have written this movie
off as a product of James Cameron's hippie sensibilities (Nature good,
Civilisation bad) but the plot is so ordinary it is not likely to have
much persuasive value. Visually it is something else. With Planet
Pandora (technically a moon), Cameron, inspired by the Amazonian rain
forest and Jurassic Park, not only has created a 3-D world of beauty
and splendour, he has staged some truly spectacular action sequences,
particularly in the air (Harry Potter and his flying broomsticks on
steroids). The average viewer is going to be swept away by this, not by
the clunky plot, which revolves around a mining venture on a distant
planet being obstructed by the locals who are justifiably upset by the
What upsets the Right's cheer brigade is the "simplistic" portrayal of the military as moronic thugs, when we have all those brave men and women out there defending freedom and our oil supplies price in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since this is a science fiction fable the analogy is likely to be lost on most viewers they are more likely to see it as a steal from "GI Joe"). As Jake Sully, the central character who changes sides in the battle, Sam Worthington is not a traitor to his race, as the cartoonish Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) calls him, but someone who realises that what is being done to the planet and its people in the quest for "unobatinium" is morally unjustified. Perhaps our columnists would like to take a look at what has been done to the environment and population by mining in New Guinea, for example.
Leaving aside the politics, Sam Worthington has just the presence for his part. It was nice to see Sigorney Weaver, an old hand in Cameron movies, back as the crusty but likable scientist Dr Grace. I also liked Giovanni Ribisi as Selfridge the mine manager once I realized he wasn't Jerry Seinfeld. He was the epitome of the corporate shyster. The unsung heroes of all this are the animation and special effects people , hundreds of them including Weta of NZ, who have put their experience in Lord of the Rings to good use.
To revert to the political, we might ask why there is an apparent "left wing" bias in Hollywood movies. The answer of course is that the Right have no imagination, a vital attribute for a successful innovative movie maker. Cameron might write clunky plots and corny dialogue, but there's nothing wrong with his visual imagination, and he has the ability to engage the primal fears of his audience, if not their intellects, and to entertain.
As so far no-one has actually located the site of the soul in the human
body (although the French philosopher Descartes thought it might be the
pineal gland), this story is technically science fiction, but with
satiric intent - "metaphysical comedy" is nearer the mark. Remember in
Charlie Kaufman's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" where Lacuna
Corp offered to remove memories you'd rather forget, such as a failed
relationship? Well, here Dr Flintstein (David Strathairn, hilarious) of
Soul Storage ("conveniently located at Roosevelt Island") offers to
store your soul temporarily while you get over your current existential
Paul Giamatti, playing a version of himself like John Malkovic in "Being", is having trouble with his stage portrayal of Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" and signs up after reading an article about soul storage in the "New Yorker" at the behest of his agent. He soon discovers that his soul might be the size of a chick pea but is necessary all the same. He is the victim of a soul-smuggling racket, and, temporarily equipped with the soul of a Russian poet, he hastens to St Petersburg, Russia, with Nina (Dina Korzun), one of the operatives (a "soul mule"), to get back his soul, which has been placed into the person of Sveta (a gorgeous Katheryn Winnick), a beautiful but vacuous soap opera star, the wife of the chief racketeer (Sergey Kolesnikov), who is under the impression it belongs to Al Pacino.
This synopsis suggests a certain amount of inspiration from Kaufman, Spike Jonze and Woody Allen, who has spent a large part of his career trying to find his and other peoples' souls, but Sophie Barthes, who debuts as a director of features here manages to put her own spin on the story, which is also very beautifully shot by Andrij Parekh. The dream sequences in particular are very carefully made and give an extra dimension to the film. Giamatti ("John Adams", "Sideways") is a fine character actor and has no trouble producing the angst required and Dina Korzun is just right as the mule who helps him out. Emily Watson is also sympathetic as Paul's baffled wife. And who should pop up as the exasperated director of the "Uncle Vanya" production but Michael Tucker "Stewart" of LA Law. The Russians are real and so is the St Petersburg seen in the film.
I enjoyed the film. Consumerism, especially as practiced by the urban middle classes in the US is an easy target, but Sophie Barthes is light on her feet and at the same time gives the satire some depth. Russian and American souls are pretty similar, it seems, it's just that Americans, having more money, have more distractions.
If one was to describe the output of the Coen brothers over the past 25
years in two words they would be "eclectic" and "idiosyncratic". This
time they have reached into their own pasts and come up with a
serio-comedy set in 1967 in which a Jewish mathematics professor in a
small college in Minnesota suffers a series of misfortunes reminiscent
of those of Job. He's up for tenure but someone is writing anonymous
hate letters to the college about him, a Korean student tries to bribe
him for a passing grade, his son is getting into trouble just as the
time for his bar-mitzvah arrives, his wife announces she is leaving him
for an old friend, the oily Sy Abelman, his redneck next door neighbour
is encroaching on his property, another neighbour seems bent on
seducing him, and he is involved in a car crash. God sure has piled it
on, but "why oh why" Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) cries. He seeks
answers from a series of increasingly comic Rabbis but of course they
have none. In the end... well, you will have to see for yourself, but
the Coen brothers aren't in for pat endings.
The spirit of Woody Allen is in there somewhere, but the Coens are a lot less self-obsessed than Woody and their characters more comic than his. They use very experienced and capable actors from the second rank, many with long experience in television, and this ensures that the actorial ego does not get in the way of the material. I'm not sure how autobiographical all this is (I wasn't even aware Minneapolis has a big enough Jewish population to support a Jewish high school, let alone a college) and I can see some Jews might regard the portrayal of some characters as offensive, but really Larry is everyman confronted by the fickle finger of fate; being Jewish gives his trials and tribulations a context.
I have absolutely no idea where the prologue, in which a Jewish peasant couple in the Poland of 100 years ago have an encounter with a wandering spirit, fits in with the rest of the story except that it illustrates one way of dealing with threats, but it is very amusing nonetheless. If you generally like the Coen style you will enjoy this movie; stay away if you do not share their brand of eclectic and idiosyncratic humour.
It is interesting that Chris Cooper should show up in this glossy HBO
production (as an uptight American college professor) he was later to
play a leading role in "Adaptation", Charlie Kaufman's brilliant and
quirky take on the perils of adapting fine literary properties to the
silver screen. What seems to have happened here is that two veteran TV
hacks, Richard Loncraine and Hugh Whitemore have got hold of an elegiac
novella by the fine Anglo-Irish author William Trevor and turned it
into something suitable for Sunday night HBO TV audiences. I was going
to say "mush", but that would do a disservice to the cast, who are
excellent, and the great location shooting. Definitely though, this
film is less that the sum of its parts and much of the poignancy of
Trevor's novella has been lost. Yet apart from the final scenes the
producers have stuck fairly closely to Trevor's storyline, and Maggie
Smith in particular manages to create a character, Emily Delahunty, at
least recognizable from the novel, a vibrant but rather hollowed out
survivor of a tough and colourful life.
It is 1987 (according to the novella, anyway the film is a bit vaguer about time) and Mrs Delahunty "56 years old" lives in Umbria where she lets out rooms in her magnificent country villa and churns out "Romance novels" a la Barbara Cartland. She is unlucky enough to be caught in a bomb explosion on the Roma-Milano express which kills several passengers in her compartment (though no-one else). Recovering in hospital she invites the survivors back to her villa, where she (and they) are looked after by her staff, including her general factotum, an eccentric Irishman called Quinty (Timothy Spall. The survivors are an elderly English gent, called the General (Ronnie Barker), a young German man with severe burns, Werner (Otlar in the book and played here by Benno Furmann) and Aimee (Emmy Clarke), a beautiful eight year old, who is physically unharmed but unable to speak after her parents have died in the explosion. The healing effects of the landscape and good living restore the spirits of the survivors but then Aimee's uptight pill of an uncle (Chris Cooper) arrives to take her back to America. Mrs Delahunty, haunted both by dreams of her own past and other things, tries desperately to keep Aimee. In the meantime the Italian plod, in the person of Inspector Girotti (Giancarlo Gianini) is investigating the bomb blast, and the finger of suspicion is pointing at Werner.
I won't reveal the ending but pretty obviously it is at variance with the book's. If it had followed the book, this would have been a minor gem. As it was made, it is indeed further evidence of the perils of the adaptation of literary properties to film. The acting's faultless, the scenery lovely, but the ending's a cop-out.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Duncan Jones has delivered a real little sci-fi gem here. With a tiny
budget he manages to get us to the moon, where a solitary Sam Rockwell
is almost at the end of a three-year contract supervising an automated
Helium mining operation. Sam has a HAL-like computer looking after him,
but after an accident outside in a moon rover, HAL starts acting well
protective. Sam is then confronted with - well himself. Sam 2 is
not a vision, unlike the apparitions in "Solaris" which are the product
of an alien intelligence, and the two Sams have to come to an
accommodation before a "rescue" mission arrives.
The lunar mining base is hi-tech but shabby, in the way than mining camps tend to be. Gerty the computer which is attached but movable is particularly battered. Voiced in sepulchral tones by Kevin Spacey, Gerty has some of the menace of HAL from "2001", but in the end follows Asimov's first law of Robotics a robot shall not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. Without giving the plot away, it is evident early on that Sam 2 is a clone. He is also undoubtedly human a clone is after all an identical twin born at a different time. Sam 2, though, is obviously programmed to replace Sam 1. How then should Sam 1 act? This situation makes for an interesting resolution. In a beautifully judged performance Sam Rockwell does a great job of his everyman in space role. We feel his loneliness and his longings. We also feel his fear, when it becomes clear that something is wrong, without any aliens or other monsters being present (the villains turn out to be home-grown). Duncan Jones makes good use of references to other great sci-fi movies but has added his own take on the "man alone in the universe" situation. It's possible to pick holes in the story (would a mining operation crucial to the Earth's energy needs have only one human supervisor?) but the movie is so well executed you hardly notice. Maybe it's all moondust, but it's a clever piece of work.
The science behind the story is sound; Helium-3 the rare helium isotope is both useful in nuclear fusion and more common on the surface of the moon than on Earth - we may well find ourselves using it as a source of energy one day.
Ana Kokkinos believes in socking it to the audience, as she has done in
"Head On" and The Book of Revelation". This movie, based on Andrew
Bovell's play "Who's Afraid of the Working Class?" is a stark study of
parent-child or rather mother-child relationships in conditions that
are almost bound to make them dysfunctional, the working class
north-western suburbs of Melbourne. It is neatly constructed with the
events of a couple of days being seen Rashomon-like, first from the
children's' viewpoints, and then from the parents'. The different
strands of the story are artfully interweaved and easy to follow.
Teenager Daniel (Harrison Gilbertson), wrongly accused of stealing the mortgage money from his parents, Tanya (Deborra Lee Furness) and father Peter played by William McInnes, goes off to do some real burglary. Stacey (Eva Larazza), who must be 13 or so, and a bit simple, has left home to join her protective older brother Orton on the streets (they doss down in a charity clothing bin). Their mother Rhonda (Frances O'Connor) already has one other child in a foster home and is a textbook welfare case, pregnant again. Meanwhile two schoolgirls Katrina (Sophie Lowe) and Tricia (Ana Baboussoras) have wagged school to do a bit of shoplifting. Katrina's mother Bianca (Miranda Otto) is off indulging her pokies habit while Trisha's seamstress mother Gina (Victoria Haralabidou) has managed to drive her son Roo (Eamon Farren) on to the streets as well, where he is soon picked up by a porno film maker. One more child is involved, an adult James (Wayne Blair), who has issues about his relationship with his mother (Monica Maughan) as well.
I suppose it says something for the mothers that despite the neglect, they rush into action when something goes wrong, because deep down, they all care the mothering instinct should not be underestimated. Not all of the stories are happily resolved but at least some relationships are restored.
Visually this film is very close-up and personal, and a challenge for the actors, who rise to it pretty well. Frances O'Connor is so good as the twitchy tattooed chain-smoking Rhonda I almost forgot it wasn't a documentary. Miranda Otto as Bianca shone also, and all the kids were good. Perhaps this film is light on entertainment value but it is absorbing as human interest enthralling even. A much better film than "The Book of Revelation'.
Bruce Beresford is one veteran Australian director who can produce
popular films, and this one is definitely a crowd-pleaser, at least for
the crowd that likes to watch dance. The story itself (naïve young
dancer from totalitarian regime defects to the freedom of the West) is
pretty hackneyed but is framed by some exquisite dancing scenes. My
former Red Guard colleague "Robin" thought that the protagonist Li
Cunxin was a bit of a goose, for, given his extraordinary talent, if he
had gone back to China he would have reached the top of the dance
establishment. Instead, seduced by the shopping malls and high rise of
Houston as well as by a young American dancer, and outraged when he
discovers the Party has lied to him about America, he defects, causing
a minor diplomatic incident and cutting himself off for the time being
at least from his family. Still, he was only 18 at the time.
The two actors portraying Li, Chengwu Gao as a boy and Chi Cao as an 18 year old, do excellent work, given that neither is a professional. In fact all the Chinese actors were terrific. The American / Australian support cast was OK (Jack Thomson reprising his good ole legal boy act, Kyle Maclachlan playing a straight role), though I found Bruce Greenwood as the Houston Dance Company director Ben Stevenson mildly irritating. One does see his point, however, about most of the Chinese dancers being athletes rather than artists. There were some sloppy aspects. Some of the Houston scenes were filmed in Balmain, Sydney, green street signs and all, which by no stretch of the imagination looks anything like anywhere in Houston. Yet Beresford filmed in Houston, and went to considerable trouble to film in China. The Qintao village scenes are beautifully composed and the very last scene shows how Beresford must have convinced suspicious local party officials that he was making a movie they could approve of. I guess he didn't show them the scenes with the Madam Maolike character chucking her weight about.
It's not mentioned in the film, but it's well known that when Li's dance career came to an end he re-trained as a stockbroker, an unlikely "happy ever after" scenario. He now lives in Melbourne. Beresford and Jan Sardi based the script on Li's own best-selling memoir and there's no doubt they have added something, if only some great ballet scenes the extract from Stravinsky's "Firebird was fabulous.
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