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Oranges and Sunshine (2010)
Evil in our names
In the years after World War Two, the British government took away children from single mothers considered unsuited for parenthood, told them they were orphans, and sent them to Australia, where they were raised as virtual slave labour by the Catholic church. This shocking but true story is revealed in Jim Loach's workmanlike film 'Oranges and Sunshine', which follows the British social worker who discovered and revealed their plight. The film is interesting because of the awfulness of the tale it reveals; but the story of its protagonist is not so interesting in itself, and indeed, the drama itself makes the point that her story is less interesting than those of the people she helped which, by contrast, are revealed only through retrospection. It's still worth watching as a reminder of the terrible things that are sometimes done supposedly in a good cause.
Warm Bodies (2013)
A pleasant little zombie film
On the face of it, 'Warm Bodies' is a very interesting film: one part zombie-action movie, one part comedy-romance, and one part whimsical science fiction. In practice, it isn't quite as interesting as it sounds, because each of three elements is actually quite generic, even though they're cleverly interspersed. Overall, the film has a nice mood, although veering heavily towards the sentimental, supported by the kind of folkie soundtrack that seems to be de-rigour in a certain sort of movie (in spite of the genre-bending, think 'Garden State' and you won't be too far out). And if it seems strange to summarise a zombie flick as pleasant viewing, in this case it's correct call.
The Epic of Everest (1924)
A bold attempt at filming an even bolder effort!
One hundred years before our present era of Facebook and Instagram, George Mallory and his fellow mountaineers took a camera crew with them to record their attempt on the then-unconquered Mount Everest. Famously, they nearly succeeded but Mallory and his companion Sandy Irvine both died in the summit attempt. It's amazing to watch the film of their expedition, now restored by the Britsih Film Institute. Judged purely as a movie, it has some limitations: the camera work is pretty impressive for its time, but it lacks the colour (and associated sound) of a modern film; in addition, although each filmed scene is described in detail, the full narrative of the mission is less well explained. For example, we're told we're about to see film of a rescue attempt high above the camp, before we've been told that the attempt had even been launched, and the logistics are only ever well explained when they've been directly filmed. Still, the movie allows us to get close to a historic and tragic episode; and to admire the crazy bravery of the men who climbed into the unknown.
La môme (2007)
A compelling performance
The recent biopics of Johnny Cash and Ray Charles were quite well done, but at times it felt as if you could superimpose them over each other scene for scene. The problem is that each film tried to tell an essentially uplifting story of hard beginnings, super-stardom, setbacks and ultimate triumph, with great songs emerging as an expression of personal struggle. But there's just not that much drama in a tale of a talented rich person nearly (but not quite) screwing up, and emerging better for the experience, so once the initial breakthrough has occurred, the rest of the movies are just illustrated documentary. 'La Vie En Rose', the story of Edith Piaff, is a bit different, even though it also uses the "song as expression of self" trope. This is because Piaff, while she also came from a poor background and struggled with drugs, ultimately didn't have a happy ending: she died young, prematurely aged. Also, as the film tells it, she was a strong, tempestuous and difficult woman, someone who lived her wealth and fame as if it might be taken from her at any moment, a form of behaviour that was sadly self-fulfilling. Marion Cotillard plays this troubled soul with some brilliance, from street gamine to ailing diva. Piaff's music is at one level unsubtle, and its rarely heard in the modern world. But even if you're more partial to rock-and-roll, hers is the more compelling story.
Killing Them Softly (2012)
Dumb crooks, smart talk
A trio of dumb criminals conspire to rob a mob-controlled card game; it falls to enforcer Brad Pitt to clean up the mess, which basically involves killing everyone involved (and some who merely happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time). Andrew Dominik's 'Killing Them Softly' is a form of ultra-black comedy, mainly consisting of stylised, deadpan conversations between Pitt's character and the various idiots he encounters and mostly dispatches. Slightly heavy-handedly, the 2008 American general election dominates the television channels on in the background. The movie is admirably unglamorous in its portrayal of gangster life; it's also a little pointless, though the mood is well-sustained, in a tale of no good guys and arguably even fewer truly wise ones.
Spring Breakers (2012)
Ambitious and banal (and both by design!)
Spring break is a uniquely American phenomenon, when young people flock to the beaches of Florida and, at least according to this film, flash their breasts, get stoned, and play with guns. Harmony Korine's movie is a strange one, combining a celebratory hedonism, a tale of people disconnected from moral society reminiscent of 'A Clockwork Orange' or 'Natural Born Killers', and in places, an elegiac mood of fractured innocence. If you wonder how these elements can co-exist, the answer is that Korine almost pulls it off through a unique but stylised presentation in which his heroines' trip down south appears more as dream than reality; but in truth, there's not really much substance holding the film together. The end result is an interesting failure, that hints at something real and disturbing between its near-pornographic surface, but can't really do much more than hint.
Double Indemnity (1944)
The dawn of the modern thriller
'Double Indemnity' is a tale of an insurance salesman who fancies he can engineer the perfect crime but who doesn't reckon on others being more ruthless than himself. It features a script by Raymond Chandler, and direction by Billy Wilder: you couldn't get much better than this in the 1940s. In it's favour, it's nicely paced with some sharp wise-cracking dialogue, and Edward G. Robinson is fun in a supporting role. Against that, it rather leads its audience by the nose, with a voice-over telling where it would have been better to simply show. This puts a distance between us and the film, which doesn't spoil the tricksy plotting but which does rather kill the movie's emotional dimension. For sure, it feels its age; but the film's redeeming virtue is in its genuine interest in telling its story, something you feel more modern films, art-house and blockbuster alike, often seem to lack.
Metro Manila (2013)
Heartfelt but obvious
Sean Ellis's film 'Metro Manila' is a well-made, but mostly predictable story about life in the slums of the capital of the Phillipines: indeed, with its story of a good man forced to do dangerous things by hard times, it could almost be a Ken Loach film. The acting is good and the movie nicely captures the different sides of the city, but the characters and situations presented all feel a little too black-and-white to be wholly convincing. The fact that the plot turns on a set of secret keys stored in an office everyone knows never to be locked also strains credulity. But the basic message here - don't, whatever you do, be poor - is heartfelt and communicated well.
The fans were excited, but (really) was the band?
Shane Meadows is one of my favourite directors; the Stone Roses are one of his favourite bands, and when they reformed a couple of years ago, Meadows got the job of making a film about their comeback, which is also a review of their career. The maker of 'This is England 90' is at his best when he captured how the band both shaped and were shaped by their time; perhaps unsurprisingly in an official documentary, we don't get much discussion of why the music on their second (career-ending) album was considered so disappointing by so many. The film of the young band is enchanting, though, if only because they are so young; as fifty-somethings, the band appear more guarded. The affectionate footage of the lifelong fans delighted by the reunion is a definite highpoint. What spoils it a little is the new concert footage at the end; an interminable guitar jam, followed by a dull rendition of 'Made of Stone' that loses all traces of the original's delicacy. One has to wait for the closing credits, and the chance to re-hear the original studio recording, to gain an appreciation of what the band did best at the peak of their career.
This Is England '90 (2015)
That Was England
Writer-director Shane Meadows reassembles the cast of his film 'This is England' for a third time in this latest min-series, picking up the course of his characters' lives a few years down the road. This is 1990 now, and as ever, Meadows is skilled at recreating a time and a place, with humour and sympathy but without rose-tinted glasses. There's a little less plot this time out than in the previous instalments, however; while the acting and writing is still spot on, this does very much feel like Meadows wrapping up the loose ends and winding the story down. He remains a special talent in the British film-making industry; the final credits bring the sad news of the death of his long term musical collaborator, the great Gavin Clark.