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'Dreamcatcher' introduces us to an astonishingly grim world of poverty, drugs, and systematic abusiveness on the hard streets of Chicago; and also to Brenda, a former prostitute, who now devotes her life to trying to save the next generation from ruin. She makes an interesting character: her style of speaking has its similarities to that of evangelical preachers, although she appears completely genuine in her message combining self-forgiveness and practical help. The really shocking thing here is quite how decayed the community is: that stories which you might expect would be aberrations appears to be normal for the girls in this film. Indeed, prostitution is clearly a symptom, but in no way the cause, for a society gone badly wrong, and it's scary how damaged the girls already are before they've even left school. Brenda gives them (and us) some hope, but overall the film, though important and compelling, is fundamentally a depressing one.
Steve McQueen's 'Twelve Years a Slave' is not exactly a bad film; but I confess to a certain disappointment in it. McQueen's earlier movies, 'Shame' and especially 'Hunger', were raw, visceral portrayals of life under a certain sort of inescapably grim reality. But 'Twelve Years a Slave', while it contains many horrific moments, is basically full Hollywood, with emotional background music underscoring the emotions we're meant to feel, and a narrative that stresses the possibility of the individual triumphing against evil and misfortune through strength of character alone. Of course, this is a common solution, because depicting unameliorated misery could make for a grim movie: the audience prefers 'The Shaswhank Redemption' to a story ending in prison suicide, or 'Schindler's List' to a drama actually set in the camps. But McQueen has previously skirted the thin line between truth and unwatchability with considerable skill: this outing, though made with a much bigger budget, is a less ambitious effort.
I think of Francois Ozon as a French version of Michael Winterbottom: a director interested in making a very diverse catalogue of films, more successful in some genres than in others, but no two of his movies are ever quite the same. 'In the House' tells the story of a teacher who encourages a pupil with a knack for storytelling, choosing to ignore (or even to encourage) the way the pupil is experimenting with life in order to find material for his tale. The twists revolve around the extent to which the teacher himself may also be present within the story. The conceit isn't a bad one, but the film has to work implausibly hard to bring it off: while the teacher and his wife are believable, I didn't find the pupil to be. Always he is writing of "normal life", as if to contrast with his own; but the film tells us nothing of what his own life actually is (except as a game-player extraordinaire). The ending is skillfully executed but overall, it's a little heavy-handed.
From 'Twin Peaks' to 'The Killing', we're all familiar with the basic template of 'The Disappearance': an attractive but apparently ordinary teenage girl suffers a grim fate, and the detectives have to understand her dark secrets to figure this out. Cue lots of grieving relatives, red herrings and nasty surprises in an extended format. Some series of this sort are even rather good, but 'The Disapperance' will not be joining my list of favourites. Somehow the characters just don't come individually to life, perhaps in part because everyone is beautiful. And a lot of the plot seems to hang upon the girl's father conducting a shadow of the police investigation in a way I found scarcely credible. Finally, the red herrings are all ultimately revealed to be just that, completely unrelated to the crux of the story. Perhaps the problem is simply that the story isn't sufficient interesting to sustain eight episodes. 'The Killing' had a political dimension whereas 'Twin Peaks' soon went off in its own, original direction. Without any novelty, 'The Disappearance', while nicely put together, lacks any elements to lift it above its genre.
In some ways, Stefan Golaszewski's comedy 'Mum' is a very conventional sitcom: a regular cast of characters, two sympathetic central protagonists supported by a variety of comic monsters, and a setting in a three-bed-roomed suburban semi. In other respects, it's less conventional: no laughter track, and a subdued comic feel that is awfully close to the bone - human beings really do behave this way, even if not quite so relentlessly. It's unusual, however, in that its six episodes are set over a year, and tell a very slowly unfolding story, while desire for a second series has seemingly precluded the natural happy ending where you might have expected it to conclude. But it's nicely drawn, and its unfashionable basic message is that small flashes of human decency can compensate for the disappointments of life. I liked it.
The late Sue Townsend wrote the definitive fantasy satire about the royal family. Townsend was a strong opponent of gross inequalities of wealth but her books worked because they were written with an element of imaginative sympathy. 'The Windsors' can be seen as another effort in the same vein, but it's not nearly as successful. It's completely over-the-top, repetitive, tediously uses bad language to fill in any gaps in the dialogue (heavy music also covers up the flimsiness of the writing), and doesn't try to inveigh any of its characters with substance. There are a few funny 'Airplane'-style gags but the relentless one-dimensional nature soon grates. It feels like a series of sketches ill-advisedly stitched together into a series. Somehow I don't feel like there'll be a second one.
When an occupying army gives up, and retreats, the immediate consequences are always going to be worst for those of the indigenous population who collaborated with the outgoing forces. For years, the United States helped keep South Vietnam independent from the north; once the U.S. troops had departed, re-unification was inevitable and eventually, the remaining Americans evacuated themselves, taking with them just some of the Vietnamese who had worked or fought for them and who now faced an uncertain future under a communist regime. Indeed, with the North VIetnamese forces on the edges of Saigon, the only way the evacuation could be staged was by helicopter, leading to extraordinary scenes all captured on film, and re-lived in this documentary. Having gotten in this mess, it's hard to see what the U.S. government could have done differently; with hindsight, of course, the whole story of U.S. involvement in Vietnam is a dreadful mistake. There's a vividness to the film clips, and to the recollections of those involved, which makes Rory Kennedy's film a particularly personal and intimate representation of the war as a whole. What doesn't need stressing is the totality of the defeat suffered by the U.S., an event that has arguably infused U.S. politics to this day.
Good comedy often depends on a mixture of almost-sympathetic semi-heroes and an accompanying cast of grotesques. Will Sharpe's 'Flowers' doesn't quite get the balance right: almost every character is grotesque, and often in ways that seem bizarrely untrue to life. Yes, most of us can seem pretty weird if you catch us on a bad day, but children's' illustrators with a penchant for drawing superheroes with erect phalluses? Good sitcom cleverly sets up situations that makes the absurd seem possible; with 'Flowers', it's the premise. What makes this even stranger is that the writer is apparently trying to tell us a serious story about depression at the same time as revelling in this strange constructed universe. For me, the show brought little in the way of either laughter or tears.
Steven Kinght's film 'Locke' tells the story of a methodical engineer, basically a good man, whose life falls apart when he faces a situation (uncharacteristally of his own making) to which his innate ultra-rationalism can offer no solution. The film's uniqueness comes from the fact that the drama unfolds entirely in a series of phone-calls he has while driving. It's somewhat manufactured with a predictability to the narrative arc, and Locke's self-contained nature is intrinsically anti-dramatic, as is the confined setting (Locke is the only character we see on screen throughout the entire film). But the script is impeccable, Tom Hardy plays the part perfectly, and (surprisingly, but appropriately for a film about the construction industry) this is a riveting movie.
Strong Danish drama 'Follow the Money' proves you don't have to centre a story on murder (not that there aren't some of those) to have a strong detective drama. The Scandinavian realist approach will be familiar to viewers of 'The Killing' or recent Icelandic drama 'Trapped'; but there's less emphasis on mood-building, and more direct focus on the story (in the manner of 'Borgen'). Ultimately, it's almost an impossible task to make a drama out of a fraud, and bits of the series seem a little too simplistic to make sense, in spite of the intricacy of the plotting; likewise, one sympathises vaguely with the characters without caring too deeply. But the pace is nicely judged, and it makes for addictive viewing.
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