Archive for February, 2015

Film: “Queen and Country”

February 22, 2015
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Bill Rohan (Callum Turner, seated rt.) watching the coronation of Elizabeth II on TV with family

More than a quarter century has passed since Hope and Glory(1987), John Boorman’s excellent autobiographical film of his childhood in the London blitz. Now we gratefully receive “Queen and Country”, a sequel of seamless tonal consistency. Although smaller in scale and significance than Hope and Glory, it still benefits from Boorman’s vision of the British character as essentially decent, practical and life-affirming.

It is 1952, and Bill Rohan (Callum Turner) is now 18 and must serve 2 years in the Army, like other British boys, and may even be sent to fight in Korea. The 9-year old we remember from the earlier film is now a tall, pleasant-looking youth with a quietly genial manner. Somehow this results in his being made sergeant. But instead of fighting the enemy, he is assigned to teach typing to new recruits with his friend Percy (Caleb Landry Jones), who is as defiantly rambunctious as Bill is passive. Their lives are made miserable by the unit director, Sergeant Bradley (David Thewlis, priceless), who suffered severe psychological damage in the war. Further complicating things is Private Redmond (Pat Shortt), their subordinate, a slacker-artist of the first order. The story follows Bill and Percy’s bumpy relationship – co-conspirators in their disdain for the army, but rivals in love – until Bill’s return to civilian life with his parents, with a hint of the director’s future film career.

Boorman smoothly controls the dual narrative. Bill lets Percy drag him into pursuing two nurses they met at a concert, even though he is blindingly entranced by a mysterious blond beauty (Tamsin Egerton) who, though she refuses to tell him her name, pulls him along tantalizingly. Bill decides to call her Ophelia, which amuses her. She visits Bill when he is staying with his parents and older sister, Dawn (Vanessa Kirby, gloriously lewd), while on leave, but says she can’t stay to watch Elizabeth II’s coronation on TV, dumbfounding the entire group. But her secret life is soon exposed, devastatingly, leaving Bill emotionally crushed until comforted, and ultimately deflowered, by Sophie (Aimee-Ffion Edwards), the very nurse he had ignored earlier, who had become Percy’s girlfriend instead.

The other narrative line follows the prank theft of an antique clock, a holy relic to their unbearably rigid commander. Bill doesn’t participate, but lets Percy and Redmond pull off the job, which they all take delicious enjoyment in. When the scheme is discovered, however, Bill learns about the often painful demands of friendship.

Part of the pleasure in the army hi-jinks story – which I admit is a little too long – is remembering the wonderful British army comedies of the 50s and 60s, like A Coming Out Party. The performances of David Thewlis and Richard E. Grant, as the martinet commander, are funny, yet skillfully shaded. Boorman doesn’t want us to enjoy their eventual humiliation too much; the hurt is made too real for that. Similarly, the lessons from the failed romance, while a film lover’s delight, are not always pain-free. After all, Boorman is remembering his very own pain here, though in a forgivingly dim light.

The performances are fresh and nimble, as they nearly always are in Boorman’s films. Dawn’s earthy but charming sexuality – with hints of taboo lust for her brother – never tips into vulgarity. Bill’s hapless infatuation is wittily shown, with the gorgeous Ophelia bathed in other-worldly colors. While the scene where Bill loses his virginity is gracefully done, it could have used the sly, zesty touch of a Mike Nichols (how I will miss him!) or Almodovar.

Despite its pleasures, this is a slighter film than its epic predecessor. Missing is the sense of an ordeal shared by an entire population, one that changes the very nature of society. The coronation, much less Korea, are not signposts of lasting significance for the British people. What we have, in sum, is a loving scrapbook; buoyant and wise, but stripped of the darker tones of that era. But then it had to end when it did. In only two years, the young Boorman would see his country savagely humiliated in Suez, an event of national redefinition. Yes, better to keep the glow of innocence while you still can.

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Film: “Wild”

February 12, 2015
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Reese Witherspoon in “Wild”

It doesn’t live up to its title, unfortunately. “Aimless” would have been more like it. We’ve seen filmmakers adapt autobiographies that tell of personal struggles or heroic exploits.  American Sniper is a recent example. Reese Witherspoon, who produced the film, obviously felt that Cheryl Strayed’s story would provide her with a challenging role. Her challenge – literally – was to show this woman hiking the entire Pacific Crest Trail as a personal mission, and for the audience to be as inspired as she was.

The film is bifurcated in that the present concerns her actually hiking the trail, and the backstory, told in flashbacks, shows her life leading up to that decision. The film opens with her at the start of the trail, in the Mojave desert. She’s kind of a novice, but some of the seasoned hikers, all male, give her pointers that prove valuable. They’re a pretty nice bunch of guys, in general.

But the emotional core of the story is the background, which establishes the cathartic nature of the journey. We glimpse her as a little girl, when her mother, Bobbi, played by Laura Dern, kicks out her abusive husband and struggles to raise Cheryl and her younger brother by herself.

What we learn about Cheryl as she grows up – and this is really the only interesting thing about this film – is that she’s not a very likable person. She seems to want to write, but somehow never does. She gets married to a “nice” guy, but shows no particular interest in him, or in raising a family. We see a person of self-doubt, defensiveness and willful isolation. The only relationship that really involves her is with her mother. There is genuine warmth between them, and Dern is appealing enough to have earned a best supporting actress Oscar nomination, complementing Witherspoon’s best actress nod.

The “motivating” event, supposedly, is Bobbi’s death from cancer. At first, Cheryl turns to heroin and pickup sex, but this only leads to divorce. Perhaps as a way to extinguish her grief, she embarks on a journey that reaches an actual destination, the Canadian border. Symbolically, a real destination is something that was missing from her life until that point.

Actually, I’m reading more into it than what the film shows because what motivates her to make this particular journey is never clear. She doesn’t seem to have any great love for nature, and neither does Bobbi. It seems Bobbi once owned a horse, which had to be killed for some reason, but I can’t connect that with crossing an 1,100 mile wilderness. In short, when the lead character of a film takes on a grueling, life-threatening adventure, the audience had better not be distracted by that question.

In fact – and I admit this is a little nasty – the only reason for Cheryl’s journey that makes any sense to me is so she could write a book about it later. Which she did.

Nick Hornby’s clunky adaptation doesn’t help, but director Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club) spotlights some colorful unknowns in the cast, even if what they do matters little to the story.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that it’s a badly made film. Given its meandering dramatic line, it plods along rather engagingly, much like its heroine. There was nothing shocking, offensive or ridiculous about it. Too bad. If it was a really bad film, it might have been more fun.

Film: “Mommy”

February 3, 2015
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left to right: Ann Dorval, Antoine-Olivier Pilon and Suzanne Clement

This French language Canadian film, the fifth feature from wunderkind Xavier Dolan, now 26, is both an emotionally affecting experience and an ordeal. For over two and a quarter hours you’re pulled into the lives of three tortured individuals, but the beauty almost makes it worth the pain. It begins with Diane, nicknamed Die (Ann Dorval), a 40-something widow, picking up her 15-year-old son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) from a youth facility. He is being kicked out because he set fire to the place, injuring another boy. Blond, with a misleadingly angelic face, Steve is at war with society in general, but really with anything he imagines will distract Die, or “Mommy”, from total devotion to his needs. What mother and son have in common is disdain for the rules of society, the foulest language you can imagine and a penetrating intelligence which they both use, in their own way, to manipulate others. But Die is at least able to focus on basic needs, finding work as a translator and maintaining a home for Steve and herself. Steve has no such inclination. He will ride his skateboard, play loud music and shoplift when the mood strikes him. After Die tries to set him straight, he blows up and nearly strangles her.

So far, it’s the setup for a familiar dramatic conflict, but with exceptional acting. What drives the rest of the film, however, is quite original. Living next door is a married couple and young daughter. The wife, Kyla (Suzanne Clement), is about Die’s age and looks very much like her. But she is demure and withdrawn, in total contrast to Die’s brazen, lower class demeanor. She says she is a teacher “on sabbatical”, but this is never explained. Yet, after a painful and sometimes violent transition period, the three of them bond into a kind of makeshift family unit, with Kyla home-tutoring Steve while Die gets jobs for expenses. This section is the heart of the film, and it works because Dolan gets performances of such fragile intimacy from his actors that you actually believe in their relationship. A crucial scene is of the three of them dancing while preparing a meal in the kitchen; you sense that beneath the joyful abandon is an awareness that their only chance of survival is a total support for each other. Yet we continue to watch with dread, knowing that Steve’s unyielding demand for Die’s love will destroy their hopes.

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Our expectations are fulfilled, and then some. The climax shows Die and Kyla picking up Steve from the hospital after a self-destructive act. Die says she has to pee, but she pulls into a parking lot near a fortress-like building, which is strange. Steve, still dazed from medication, fails to see what’s coming. The next scene, brilliantly edited, whips the camera back and forth to each of them, at distant locations in the parking lot. Both women have breakdowns while Steve struggles with the attendants, who need to use a taser to immobilize him.

Rarely will you see actors pushed to such emotional extremes and yet, not once, do you sense an “actorish” moment. But it only succeeds because the depth of their relationship is the story; we know how much it pains Die and Kyle to do what they did, but we also accept that they had no choice.

As with some other quality films I’ve seen recently, the screenplay is overstuffed and unresolved. A fantasy of Steve having a normal life – including marriage and a child – is unnecessary, and a scene in a karaoke bar is poorly done. The circumstances of Kyla’s depression are never explained, but Clement’s subtly shaded performance overcomes this lapse.

A final word: There’s been criticism of Dolan’s use of a 1:1 ratio screen size as a distracting affectation. I think it intensifies the action, lending power to the more emotional scenes. But whatever you think of it, it’s odd that one of the most honored films of the year, Birdman, gets only praise for a different gimmick: following the film’s action with only two actual cuts for its entire two-hour running time. The camera swoops around talented actors playing clichéd characters in dozens of New York locations for no purpose whatsoever. And Inarritu gets the Golden Globe screenplay award! Go figure.


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