Melbourne, December, 18th, 2017 (Peter Malone). Below, find the first part of film critics written by Peter Malone for the month of December.

  • JUST TO BE SURE/ OTEZ-MOI D’OUTE
  • KILLLING OF A SACRED DEER, The
  • LUCKY
  • MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS, The
  • MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS
  • ONLY THE BRAVE
  • ORNITHOLOGIST, The
  • SCHOOL LIFE
  • SHOT CALLER
  • STAR, The
  • TULIP FEVER
  • WONDER
  • WONDER WHEEL

 

JUST TO BE SURE/ OTEZ-MOI D'UN DOUTE

France, 2017, 100 minutes, Colour.

François Damiens, Cecile De France, Guy Marchand, Andre Wilms, Alice de Lencquesaing, Esteban.

Directed by Carine Tardieu.

This light drama has been highly touted as very popular at the French box office. While it is a pleasant entertainment, it is a comparatively ordinary film. (Some French reviewers have referred to it as “hilarious” which might indicate the French sense of humour is very different from other senses of humour!)

Not that there is not plenty to enjoy. The title is provocative – and refers to themes of paternity which are explored in several different ways throughout the film.

The central character is Erman (François Damiens), a working man in his mid-40s, an expert in bomb disposal and active along the Brittany coast, finding remainders from World War II. He leads a squad who generally have to detonate the bombs they discover but also risk dangers, especially from mines in farming fields. Erman is a widower, fond memories of his wife, devoted to his father, an ageing man who loves going out on his boat and needs medical clearances to continue to do so. Erman also has a daughter, Juliet, aged 22, pregnant and declaring she does not know who the father is.

First paternity problem.

There are quite some complications when Erman and his daughter go to the doctor to check on whether they are carrying a disease which has carried off family members in the previous generation. And so, the main paternity problem. It would seem that Erman’s sailing father is not actually his father. What to do? Try to find out the truth? Let it be? He even asks the rather awkward young man, Didier (Esteban) whom his daughter has persuaded him to take on for a job - which he does not do well.

There is an amusing sequence when he goes to a private detective – a rather older woman with an acerbic tongue. But she does the job and for the rest of the film, we can rather enjoy Erman’s searching out his actual father, their encounters, the bond between them.

Another part of the plot is the fact of Erman being upset when a driver hits a boar on the road during the night. She is Anna, a doctor, who is able to put the boar down. Later, Erman sees her in the town, is very much attracted, invites her to dinner. But then there is a further paternity complication – which the trailer unfortunately reveals but which will not be revealed here.

So, paternal complications, the role of the two fathers, the discovery of Juliet’s baby’s father (not too difficult), the possibility of a romance between Erman and Anna, the birth of the baby…

On the whole, the film has a rather gentle sense of humour, rather than hilarious, and there are some serious moments as well as, towards the end and the birth of the baby, some farcical moments.

And so, the meaning of the title, just being sure who is who – and how.

 

LUCKY

US, 2017, 88 minutes, Colour.

Harry Dean Stanton, David Lynch, Ron Livingston, Ed Begley Jr, Tom Skerritt, Beth Grant, James Darren, Barry Shabaka Henley, Yvonne Huff, Hugo Armstrong.

Directed by John Carroll Lynch.

It is not everyone who has the opportunity to make a film of their epitaph. But, this is the case with Harry Dean Stanton, his last film, drawing on aspects of his own life, something of an epitaph portrait.

It is also an elegy for Harry Dean Stanton, his career, his way of life, his screen images – and, before he walks along the desert road the end of the film, he actually does look straight into the camera and, rather gently, smiles.

While there are narrative aspects of the screenplay, the film is more of a character portrait, perhaps too slow for those who have action compulsions, but rewarding for those who are able to stay quietly with Lucky and the inevitability of his moving towards death. The tagline for the film is “the spiritual journey of an atheist”. While this is basically true, Lucky is not a rabid atheist but, rather, a Texan humanist.

Harry Dean Stanton has appeared in a number of films over many decades, something of a figurehead for many independent films, including those of David Lynch. However, he is best known for his lead role in the 1984 Wim Wenders film, Paris, Texas. Interesting to note that in the final song in the film (and there are a number of songs whose lyrics contemplate death, life, darkness…), The Moonshine Man, there is mention of Stanton by name and also a reference to Paris, Texas.

The location of this film doesn’t seem to be all that far from Paris, Texas. It is a small town in the south-west, and in the desert (with opportunities for some fine desert scenery). Lucky, his nickname because of his job in the Navy during World War II, lives alone, never married, in a modern enough house. We see him get up in the morning, turn on the radio, light a cigarette (he is most definitely a smoker, defending it though sacked from a restaurant job for lighting up while working there). He does exercises, gets dressed, walks/shuffles to a diner for breakfast where he is friendly with the manager and the assistant, chatting, being quiet, doing word puzzles and reflecting on the meaning of “realism”. He later declares his belief in ‘truth’ as a thing.

He wanders around the town, buy some milk for his fridge (the only thing there) and is friendly with the shopkeeper who later invites him to the fiesta, many Hispanics in the town, for her son’s 10th birthday. In the background, frequently there is The Red River Valley on a harmonica.

At night he goes to the bar, drinks, talks to friends, is quiet, listens to the barkeeper (Hugo Armstrong) who has a long sequence of explaining the mechanism of Deal No Deal which Lucky doesn’t think much of. The proprietor is Elaine, Beth Grant, who has some raucous stories of her own but who is very fond of her long-time partner, Paulie, star of the past, James Darren, and, especially, his friend, Howard, who is lamenting the loss of his pet tortoise, President Roosevelt. He is played by David Lynch, making a tribute to Stanton by appearing in the film, and has a very fine speech about loneliness and his devotion to his tortoise.

There is a bitter moment when an insurance salesman, Bob (Ron Livingston), is putting pressure on Howard and is attacked with Lucky’s disapproval. But, there are moments of redemption, with Bob later visiting the town, getting Lucky’s cold and silent treatment but taking the initiative, breaking through, telling some stories about himself and his daughter with Lucky responding well. A Marine veteran (Tom Skerritt), stops for a drink and shares a poignantly reminiscing chat with Lucky about their war service, in Asia, in the Philippines. Happiness and regrets.

But, Lucky has a blackout and fall, goes to the doctor, Ed Begley Jr, gets advice but realises he has to prepare for death, which, for him, is simply a void, the end of everything.

Speaking of redemption, there is a wonderful sequence when Lucky goes to the fiesta, is welcomed by the mother and her son, the woman introducing him to her mother who does not speak much English. A Mariachi band plays and, suddenly and unexpectedly, Lucky breaks into a plaintive song in Spanish, a beautiful moment revealing the humanity of Lucky.

It is not surprising to find that Lucky won the Ecumenical Award at the 2017 Locarno Film Festival.

 

THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS

2017, 104 minutes, Colour.

Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Simon Callow, Miriam Margolyes, Ian McNeice, Morfydd Clark, Donald Sumpter, Bill Paterson, Miles Jupp, Annette Badland, Justin Edwards, Anna Murphy.

Directed by Bharat Nalluri.

One might have thought that Jesus himself might have been considered the “inventor” of Christmas – or, at least, Matthew or Luke in their Gospels. But, no, the man of the title is Charles Dickens, so well-known for his novel, A Christmas Carol.

This is an entertaining imagination about Dickens and his crisis in 1843, his failure with three books including Martin Chuzzlewit and his book on his American tour (with which the film opens, an extrovert extravaganza from his audience and his wishing he could get home!). Dickens has a block, is in debt, his fear that if he doesn’t produce another book or, if it fails, he will never write again.

Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey and his reminding us of his role as the Beast in Beauty and the Beast) is a sometimes frantic Dickens, caught up in his own world and imagination, angry with others, including his wife, resentful of his father and his extravagance, living in his imagination as he gathers names, images, family connections to produce A Christmas Carol.

Just as there are ghosts and fantasy in the novel itself, this film uses the same technique. Central to it all is Scrooge himself (and there are a couple of scenes in the trailer which are, unfortunately, not in the film, scenes where Dickens is trying to work out the name Scrooge as well is what he will call his story). Scrooge is played by Christopher Plummer, relishing the role, denouncing humbug, misanthropic, pessimistic, quick with the putdown of Dickens himself (the author – allegedly!). The ghost of Scrooge enables Dickens to focus on a story, the character of Scrooge and his heartlessness toward Bob Cratchit and, especially, the ailing Tiny Tim. Actually, by the end, Scrooge is able to challenge Dickens who then discovers his own Scrooginess, redeeming Scrooge himself.

We see how Dickens loves collecting names, relishing Marley, for instance. There is an nice touch at the end when he hears the name Copperfield. In fact, the presentation of his father in this film is very much like Mr Micawber.

Dickens has a put-upon wife, several children, a manager of his household and a maid. They all have a lot to put up with. And then his father turns up, Dickens having bought his parents a house in Devon. His father, well played by Jonathan Pryce, really has no conception of money and imposes on his son, his wife always patient. Dickens finds him exceedingly exasperating but, as he has a flashback about his father’s imprisonment, Dickens himself going to a blacking factory (with echoes of Oliver Twist), being bullied, he finally remembers that a bequest from his father is that everyone should play a part in lightening others’ loads.

Dickens’ sister and her family arrive from Manchester for a visit – and their little son is ill and has a crutch. Which means that various characters that Dickens encounters become part of his fantasy, his sister’s family becoming the Cratchits, his good friend and confidante, John Forster (a likeable Justin Edwards), becomes the ghost of Christmas present and his lawyer becomes the ghost of Jacob Marley. Dickens goes into this world quite frequently and, happily, with “God bless us everyone”, there is Christmas cheer all round as the book is finally published on time, John Leach (played by Simon Callow who has played Dickens on screen and on stage) finishing the sketches, Thackeray, seen as a rival to Dickens, giving the book a very warm review.

In the note at the end of the film remind us that one of the great effects of the novel was an increase in philanthropy, in people giving to those in need.

 

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

US, 2017, 114 minutes, Colour.

Kenneth Branagh, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr, Penelope Cruz, Josh Gad, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, William Dafoe, Olivia Coleman, Derek Jacobi, Manuel Garcia Rulfo, Lucy Bointon, Adam Garcia, Richard Clifford, Miranda Raison.

Directed by Kenneth Branagh.

There are two ways for audiences to respond to watching Murder on the Orient Express. It will depend on whether the audience has read the book or seen film versions.

For those not in the know, the film will be quite a spectacular whodunnit. For those in the know, the intriguing aspect will be watching the journey, the crime, the interviews, the solving of the case – and, instead of whodunnit, ‘howdunnit’!

In the film and television audience imagination, older audiences will see Albert Finney in the 1974 version. At the end of this film, there is mention that there has been a murder on the Nile and Poirot is off to Egypt, in Death on the Nile, Poirot was Peter Ustinov, who appeared in several further Poirot films. The actor who most embodies Poirot, with television producers aiming to film all the novels with David Suchet, is David Suchet. Which means that for many, Poirot is bald, small, fastidious, immaculately dressed, immaculately spoken – and with a small moustache.

Kenneth Branagh goes to an entirely different style, not only head hair but, what a moustache!

Kenneth Branagh has directed the film as well. He has a very fine cast with Johnny Depp rather sinister and sleazy as the victim. Depending on the amount of time they have on screen, the strength of their screen presence, other members of the cast man make strong impressions or not enough. Probably the person with the most impact is Michelle Pfeiffer as the rather brassy American. But, audiences will have to be satisfied with the rather more diminished sequences with such luminaries as Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Willem Dafoe, although Daisy Ridley (so strong in Style Wars: The Force Awakens) certainly makes an impression.

To give a bit of flavour, there is an episode in Jerusalem in 1934, accusations of theft near the Wailing Wall, with the accused a rabbi, a priest, an email. It is all staged to give audiences an impression of the skills of Poirot – who has interrupted his fastidious breakfast, two eggs the same size, he measuring them for satisfaction… Or not.

Ferry to Istanbul and then the Orient Express, with some magnificent scenery in snowclad mountains, at train level, aerial photography, even an avalanche trapping the train on top of a wooden bridge.

And, there, a murder. Everyone has an alibi and each, in turn, has an opportunity for an interview with Poirot to explain their case.

Which gives the opportunity for the audience to enjoy the cast and their cameos.

As with most Agatha Christie stories, the detective gathers all the people concerned into a room, explains the situation and unmasks the killer. When you are in the middle of the mountains, why confine people to a room, even to the luxurious dining room of the train?. Rather, the weather having cleared, everybody sits at the opening of the train tunnel, Poirot facing them all and offering his detective disquisition on what happened.

Agatha Christie has many ingenious plots and this one has a high reputation in being ingenious.

 

ONLY THE BRAVE

US, 2017, 134 minutes, Colour.

Josh Brolin, Jennifer Connolly, Miles Teller, Jeff Bridges, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch, Andi MacDowell, Alex Russell.

Directed by Joseph Kosinski.

This is a fine film about firefighters, especially in Arizona. It is based on a true story and serves as a tribute to the firefighters. And, if an audience does not know the background of the story, it is well advised that they do not research it at all before seeing the film and so lessening its impact.

The Western states of the United States are frequently subject to huge forest fires. Professional firefighters as well as volunteers have to be ready at short notice to go into action. One of the great values of this film is how well and seriously it presents these themes. It highlights the professionalism needed by the firefighters, their dedication and commitment, the rigours of training which is very military-like, the need for following orders, the strong camaraderie in collaboration, the ever present dangers as well as the sometimes of long absences from home and family.

For other countries, like Australia, which experience fires in the summer seasons, this is a film well worth seeing. Visually, it certainly brings home the reality of the fires, their extent, the rapidity of movement given the winds, the intensity of the flames. Audiences will see how physically demanding the work is, hard work, with mental concentration – as well as the strategies that have to be developed by the leaders and supervisors to combat the fires. In this film, there are many fire sequences, realistic, and editing with the performers so that the experience of the fires is particularly real.

The film has a very good cast and is well written, based on a long article written in 2014 for GQ by Sean Flynn.

The film depends on the presence and performance of Josh Brolin as Eric, the superintendent of the group in Prescott, Arizona. He embodies very well the kind of sturdy solidity and responsibility that the firefighter leader must have. He is completely believable in the role. Jennifer Connolly is his strong-minded wife, Amanda, a horse-whisperer who is supportive of her husband but is beginning to change her mind about the need for having a family.

It is interesting to see Jeff Bridges, in the familiar kind of role as the older mentor, but with short back and sides and wearing glasses. He is a senior role model – although, towards the end of the film, he does have a moment to branch out at a celebration in a bar, singing Riders in the Sky. Andi MacDowell has some moments as his wife.

A team of good actors take the role of the special squad on which the film focuses. They are volunteers but want to be recognised and certified as an official group for their district. One of the episode shows their work in being observed for certification – and Eric using his crew with the observer, standing his ground in the decision about tactics. They are accepted and there are great celebrations, and T-shirts, to hail of the occasion.

It is Miles Teller (Whiplash) who has second billing. He plays Brendan McDonough who, it is noted at the end, served as a special adviser for the film. Actually, when he first appears, he is a heroin addict, something of a loner and a loser, has got a girl pregnant in a one-night stand, has been picked up the public by the police and jailed. He is ousted from his home by his mother. On probation, he does go to Eric and applies for a job with the firefighters, is interviewed strongly, is tested in a long-distance run and is finally accepted.

He clashes with one of the men who fancies himself a ladies’ man, Mac (Taylor Kitsch) but they develop a friendship, Brendan taking Mac in when he breaks up with his girlfriend, Mac fitting out the house for Brendan’s baby after her mother relents, supporting him after he is bitten by a snake. James Badge Dale is also strong as the captain of the group.

The action of the film builds up to a final fire, the historical fire in 2013 when the town of Yarnell stands in the pathway of the fire and the Granite Mountain Hotshots have to defend homes and stop the fire.

This is a solid film, interesting and entertaining, strong characterisations, significant action sequences, and showing how in reality, rather than in sloganeering, it is fighters like this who can make America great.

 

THE ORNITHOLOGIST/ O ORNITOLOGO

Portugal, 2016, 117 minutes, Colour.

Paul Hamy, Joao Pedro Rodriguez, Han Wen, Chan Suan and, Juliane Elting.

Directed by Joao Pedro Rodriguez.

While initially an audience might believe they are coming to see a nice film about a bird watcher, and there are some pleasant scenes of Fernando (Paul Hamy) on the river, his binoculars, looking at some beautiful birds, nesting, eggs…, it might be prudent to advise that this is not a straightforward narrative film. It is something of an allegory, it has touches of the mystical, and, for many audiences, maybe quite too mysterious.

There is an opening quotation from Saint Anthony of Lisbon, better known to us all as Saint Anthony of Padua, originally a Portuguese man named Fernando who became a Franciscan, and who has devout legends about him as being the patron of things which are lost as well as the story of his preaching to the birds. The opening quotation has references to nature, echoes of the spirituality of St Francis of Assisi, as well as a sense of spirits in the forests.

Something of this needs to be kept in mind. The director, Joao Pedro Rodriguez, has made a short film about celebrating the feast of Saint Anthony. And it can be noted that, by the end of the film, the director himself appears as an actor, taking over from Paul Hamy as the ornithologist, and this time called Anthony rather than Fernando as he and another character walk, like pilgrims, into the actual city of Padua.

Another note which will help audiences understand the approach of Rodriguez is that he is a gay man and there are some significant gay perspectives throughout the film.

When Fernando is caught in the rapids and his kayak is split, he lies in the water but has not drowned. Now begin some of the mysteries. He is rescued by two young Chinese women, who say that they are on their way to Compostella, walking the Camino. They are rather off-track, in forests in the north of Portugal where it meets Spain. While they are nervous, and say their prayers, and feed Fernando, they then tie him up, roped upright in his underwear resembling the image of Jesus on the cross.

But there are more encounters in Fernando’s Odyssey, most significantly a mute and deaf young man who write his name on the sand, Jesus. Some audiences may balk at what follows but there is a sexual interlude between Fernando and the young man, (perhaps a gay suggestion of the intimacy between St Anthony and Jesus himself), but there are some violent consequences with Jesus’ side pierced by a knife and blood flowing out.

In the forests there are some strange men, masks and elaborate costumes, shouting and dancing – preparing for a fiesta and one of them, Thomas, turns out to be the twin brother of Jesus. He also has a knife wound in his side (and it was Thomas who wanted to put his finger in Jesus’ side – as Fernando puts his finger in Thomas’s side).

Keeping the mythical tone, Fernando is accosted by three bare-breasted Amazons who actually speak to him in Latin. They let him go.

Birds are present throughout the film, images, bird sounds – and, significantly in a tableau at the end, there is a white dove (which some audiences researching the Catholic symbolism missed), the Holy Spirit in the forest. The quote from Saint Anthony at the opening of the film did indicate that there were spirits in the forest.

And, finally, Thomas and the now Anthony walking into Padua – and the Chinese girls passing by, waving from the other side of the road.

Plenty to puzzle over for those who wish to pursue the allegory.

 

SCHOOL LIFE

Ireland, 2016, 99 minutes, Colour.

John and Amanda Leyden,

Directed by Neasa Ni Chianain, David Rane.

There is great deal of human interest in this documentary which has won a number of awards citing it has a pleasant experience about education.

Interestingly, the original title was the Latin, In Loco Parentis – in place of the parents.

The setting is Headfort School in an 18th-century estate and mention in County Meath, the last boarding school in Ireland for primary students. The student group is quite select, many of them having ambitions to get into prestigious schools in Ireland or, especially, Harrow and Eton in the United Kingdom.

While there is a great deal of emphasis on the students and some of them do become central to the story and action, especially the awkwardly dyslexic Ted, the silent Eliza, we recognise the students by their faces and behaviour rather than by their names.

However, the central focus is on two veteran teachers, John and Amanda Leyden. The film opens in their home, having a quiet breakfast smoke and conversation. They have been at the school many years – and John later tells a student that they were married in 1972, which puts him at the school for almost 45 years, married for almost 45 years. They have dedicated their life to the school. The current principal, Dermot Dix, was also a student there.

The number of students is comparatively small as is the number of staff. These are glimpsed, sometimes in conversation, sometimes with the children, but the principal focus is on the work of the Leydens. In appearance, John looks something of a rebel, very casually dressed, long hair askew, a touch of the cynical and the critical in his dealing with the students, yet very concerned about them. Amanda looks something of a dowdy grandmother. But they are deeply concerned about the students, do their best to form them in their studies and as persons. At home, the couple have conversations about the students, discussing their concerns and what they might do.

Amanda is principally concerned with literature. We see her in the library recommending books. We see her in the classroom. We also see her directing some scenes from Hamlet, intriguing to see the primary school students and their rehearsals, the extensive make up, the nervousness, the performance, especially of Ted as the ghost and of Hamlet. Amanda shares their anxiety as well as their exhilaration.

On the other hand, while John teaches maths and Latin, he is also interested (more interested?) in music. He is an old-time rock ‘n’ roller and there are various posters and indications of his fondness for David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix. He encourages the children to sing whatever they can and whatever they like. He is also interested in the instruments, he himself playing the piano. Some play the guitar. And there is a young girl, Florie, who arrives in the school, having been a model but with some low self-esteem, who plays the drums. Ultimately, there is a performance for the parents at which the students excel.

There are some staff meetings, interesting to hear the principal and his assessment of the students and the ethos of the school.

At the end of the year, some of the students are overjoyed they get into their preferred schools. And there is a ceremony in local awards with the untalkative Eliza winning several awards and beginning to talk – and talk and talk.

There is no voice-over for this documentary. Rather, the audience is introduced to John and Amanda, seeing the range of students at meetings, out in the grounds, in classes, in discussions, music practice, theatre, cricket.

The director and the editor have chosen particular scenes, seemingly at random, to build up the kind of piecemeal jigsaw rather than any set piece.

By the end of the film, the audience has experienced a perspective on education of primary school children. The film will, of course, be of particular interest to teachers and parents if their children are in primary school.

 

SHOT CALLER

US, 2017, 121 minutes, Colour.

Nikolaj Costeaur-Wald, John Bernthal, Omari Hardwick, Lake Bell, Holt McCallany, Benjamin Bratt, Jeffrey Donovan, Evan Jones, Max Greenfield, Emory Cohen.

Directed by Ric Roman Waugh.

This is a little heard of film, which is a pity. It is not a film that everyone would enjoy but for those who like serious and strong dramas with moral issues and emotional issues, this can be recommended.

The film has been written and directed by Ric Roman Waugh, better known for his work in stunts since the 1980s.

The film opens and closes with letters, the opening with a letter from a criminal in jail to his son, the ending with a letter from the son to his father, in jail.

The structure of the film is such that it seems to start, in terms of the narrative, at point B. A man who has been behind bars for ten years is released just as there is a hanging in the corridor. He looks tough, especially with a handlebar moustache, lines in his face. He is picked up by other criminals, taken to accommodation, goes to a club where there is a drive-by shooting and he makes contact with a rather baby-faced veteran from Afghanistan with discussion about stolen arms.

When the screenplay unexpectedly takes us back to point A, it is quite a surprise. How could the man that we have just seen leaving prison be the rather dapper stockbroker, with wife and young son, dining at a fashionable restaurant and discussing business, be the same man who leaves jail ten years later?

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is most persuasive in the central role, shading the character of the stockbroker in his good days and as a prisoner in his bad days.

The continued flashbacks from the continuing point B, take quite a while to show the details of what happened in point A, car accident, court case, imprisonment.

Where the film is very interesting, psychologically speaking, is in the experience of the man in jail – real name Jacob, nickname “Money” because of his being a stockbroker. The screenplay raises the questions about how one survives in jail, the pressures of gangs, racial segregation, emotional blackmail. And the question whether a prisoner under such pressures has the exercise of free will or not. To that extent, the film shows the steps in the gradual downfall of Jacob leading to fights in the courtyard, murders, connections with arms dealing outside the prison, corrupt guards.

There is some emotion during the sequences with the visit of Jacob’s wife (Lake Bell), her sadness, her being mystified by the changes in her husband, and her surname growing up during his teen years.

All this is leading to point C, what will happen to Jacob as he leaves prison, the talk of an arms deal and his taking control. His liaison is Shotgun (Jon Bernthal) whom he had known in prison but is now making the connections for handing over of the weapons to a Mexican cartel.

In the meantime, we have been introduced to some of the police in Los Angeles, especially Omari Hardwick seen in a raid and wounded immediately in action when confronting a suburban paedophile. He is also Jacob’s supervisor during his probation. It emerges that the police have a leak within the rogue group and we wonder how Jacob is going to handle the situation. At times, this is not a pretty picture. The scenes of the sale and the raid are well executed and we are still puzzling over Jacob’s motivation and his subsequent behaviour.

There are explanations, some coming right at the end, which means that the audience is involved throughout the film with Jacob and his character, the changes, the motivations, some dismay at his behaviour, some hopes for change in behaviour, but the audience puzzling and reflecting right up to the end of the film.

 

THE STAR

US, 2017, 86 minutes, Colour.

Voices of: Stephen Yuen, Keegan-Michael Key, Aidy Bryant, Gina Rodriguez, Zachary Levi, Christopher Plummer, Ving Rhames, Gabriel Iglesias, Kelly Clarkson, Anthony Anderson, Kris Kristofferson, Kristin Chenoweth, Mariah Carey, Oprah Winfrey, Tracy Morgan.

Directed by Timothy Reckart.

Teachers and parents have been asking about this film. They want to know whether it would be helpful in classes about the religious meaning of Christmas, whether it will be helpful for families to see the film in preparation for Christmas.

This is an animation film, sponsored by Sony, with a great deal of the animation work done in Canada. The animation decision indicates that this will not be a “realistic “presentation of the familiar stories from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

(One might add that some bloggers have taken a very serious stance, objecting that this means of communication is not fit for gospel stories, is irreverent, could demean the stories. They forget that there has been a long tradition of cribs, different imagination of humans and animals in cribs, and Christmas legends like The Small One with Bing Crosby’s 1947 recording available on Youtube.)

It is important to note that this is a film designed for the youngest of audiences. It is definitely geared to “littlies” and the parents who accompany them and who are eager for their children to learn, as befits their age, something about Christmas – rather than the tinsel and commercialism, the over-emphasis on Santa Claus and children knowing more about him, the North pole, his reindeers than about Jesus.)

The filmmakers agree that they have taken liberties with imagining and embellishing the story, wanting to add some tones of humour to delight the children’s audience, some slapstick and pratfalls to have them laughing (which the littlies do), and a touch of drama with Mary and Joseph hurrying to Bethlehem, a sinister King Herod manipulating the wise men and a brutal soldier and two fierce dogs in pursuit of Mary and Joseph.

So, while Mary and Joseph and Herod are significant characters, the point about this telling of the story is that it is from the point of view of the animals and their being the central characters as well. Actually, the humans can’t hear them talk, only the familiar animal sounds. But, the audience hears them and they have a range of voices from a number of American actors and comedians including Oprah Winfrey, Tracy Morgan, Mariah Carey as the camels and Christopher Plummer as Herod.

The central character is a donkey called Bo. He and an old donkey (voiced by Kris Kristofferson) are mill donkeys, going in circles all their lives, Bo eager to escape but not really knowing how. He is well voiced by Korean-American actor, Steven Yuen. Bo has a cheeky dove friend, prone to wisecracks (Keegan Michael Key). They want to be in the king’s entourage.

Bo and Dave want to help Mary, who has been kind to Bo, and they hurry along the road to Bethlehem where they meet a lost sheep, Ruth (Aidy Bryant).  Lots of comedy here, verbal and physical.

While the pursuing soldier might be frightening, the littlies might find the two snarling dogs (one fierce, the other rather dumb) fiercer – though they do have a crib conversion!

The key elements of Mary and Joseph, annunciation, betrothal, visit from Elizabeth and Zachary, inns and stables are all there – though, for some tastes the expected very American accents of Gina Rodriguez and Zachary Levi sound too modern, Mary prone to say ‘OK’ a lot.  While Herod is evil, we see all the elements of Matthew 2 – though not the killing of the Innocents, the fierce soldier in pursuit being enough.

The film opens ‘9 months BC’! The light of the annunciation vision goes up into the sky to shine for the Magi and all, people and animals alike.

It is not a film for older children, unless they are tolerant of films for those younger than they are, nor a film designed for adults. The older children will identify more with The Nativity Story of 2006.

But, this is a nice little film for little audiences, part of initial steps to learning the Gospel stories.

 

SWEET VIRGINIA

US/Canada, 2017, 93 minutes, Colour.

Jon Bernthal, Christopher Abbott, Imogen Poots, Rosemarie DeWitt, Odessa Young.

Directed by Jamie M. Dagg.

Sweet is not exactly the word that comes to mind throughout this film. The title, in fact, refers to a motel in a remote Alaskan town (although the film takes full advantage of beautiful mountain scenery, photographed in the town of Hope, Canada). And, as regards Virginia, the central character plays an old rodeo rider, now injured and retired to Alaska, who had some success, as we see in flashbacks, in Roanoke, Virginia.

This is a film about moral decline in a small American town. It is something in the vein of the popular film noir of the 1940s, much of the action taking place in dark surroundings.

The film opens quite strikingly with a man arriving at a diner to join his two friends and a card game. Normal enough, phone calls to wives, everything quiet. A stranger then arrives, even though the diner is closed, and demands a meal. He identifies the manager of the diner. He does go out, but returns with deadly results.

As the film proceeds, we see his connection to quite a number of other people in the town. There are secrets and lies, there are fidelities and infidelities, there is ordinariness, there is malice, there is love and there is hate.

The rodeo rider, Sam, played by Jon Bernthal, now manages a motel where the stranger is staying and begins a friendship with him. This is in contrast with another resident of the motel subject of complaint about noise who is a violent man and bashes Sam.

It emerges that the stranger, Elwood (Christopher Abbott in a truly sinister role, psychopathic, heartless, yet sentimental in phoning his mother) is a hitman employed for the initial violence in the film. We are also introduced to two of the wives of the men dead in the diner, Imogen Poots as a young woman in an unhappy marriage, Rosemarie de Witt also in an unhappy but longer marriage, in a relationship with Sam.

It will emerge that Sam is to be the hero of the film even though he limps with his bad leg, is getting older, loses out in fights. But, he is sincere in his relationship with the widow, which comes to a head when masked robbers invade her home.

There are sympathetic characters at the motel, the older manager and a young woman for whom Sam is the father-figure, (Australian Odessa Young).

While some audiences may find the film more than a touch dour and prefer not to enter into this kind of moral decline, those who want an interesting drama with well-delineated characters, will find it interesting and different in its way.

 

TULIP FEVER

UK, 2017, 107 minutes, Colour,

Alica Vikander, Christoph Waltz, Dane de Haan, Holliday Granger, Jack O’Connell, Judi Dench, Tom Hollander, Zack Galifiniakis.

Directed by Justin Chadwick.

One of the difficulties of reviewing is the eventual comparing notes with other reviews. And, it is sometimes surprising when a reviewer finds that a film that he has very much liked and enjoyed is the object of so much derision and condemnation. Reviewers and IMD bloggers seem to be unanimous in their dislike of Tulip Fever. What a pity!

The screenplay has excellent credentials, a collaboration between the author of the original novel, Deborah Moggach and celebrated playwright and screenwriter, Tom Stoppard. So many amateur bloggers have dismissed his writing as uninspired! The performances are interesting but those who did not like the film consider the central characters as so unlikable. Being likeable is not the essential for audience entertainment – Macbeth and his wife were not the most likeable of characters!

So, after these observations, what can a reviewer say about Tulip Fever and why it seemed such an interesting entertainment.

The setting is Amsterdam in 1634 – and a postscript set eight years later. If ever there was a film which spent a lot of attention on settings, costumes and decor, a recreation of the city, the canals, the markets, mansions, convents and churches, then this is a strong contender. And the frequent scenes of Amsterdam are totally atmospheric, a great number of extras, all in the dress of the period (remember Rembrandt), all busy, scurrying through the streets, the side of the canals, the fish markets, the door-to-door sales, crowded gatherings for trade in tulips, and the convent where the tulips are grown. The audience is immersed in the atmosphere. (And the score is by Danny Elfman.)

The cast is strong. We are introduced to the central character, Sophia (Alicia Vikander), along with her siblings at an orphanage Judi Dench as the abbess. For the children to go abroad for a new life, Sophia has to enter an arranged marriage with a local merchant, Cornelis (Christoph Waltz). His great desire is to have an heir and the couple make frequent strenuous attempts but fail.

When the merchant has the idea that the couple should have a portrait painted, an inexpensive young painter, Johan (Dane de Haan) is employed. Actually, there is a lot of detail in how posing (with the subjects and substitutes) is done, details of paint mixing and sketching. It is not difficult to predict what will happen – and does, although the details of the romance and its consequences become quite complicated.

In fact, everything is narrated by Maria (Holliday Grainger), the maid of the house, an astute observer of characters and situations who is in love with the local fishmonger, Will (Jack O’Connell).

And the tulip fever? A kind of 17th-century Dutch dot.com frenzy with the buying and selling and exploitation of tulips – with the abbess quite a business manager in the cultivation and sale of tulips. And financial collapse.

Actually, there are quite a lot of complications and Tom Stoppard is able to suggest a lot of psychological dimensions in telling lines of dialogue, audiences needing to be alert.

Difficulties? The characters are in difficult situations and struggle with them and so audiences are not able to identify entirely with them. And the trouble with Dane de Haan is that he looks so young (as he did in Valerian) although, in fact, he is older than Alilcia Vikander. But Judi Dench is always interesting. Holliday Grainger and Jack O’Connell do get our sympathy, Christoph Waltz is a master at a blend of the harsh and ironic, and Tom Hollander has a good cameo as a doctor who in later centuries would be immediately disbarred.

It is hoped that audiences venturing into see Tulip Fever will also find it interesting and entertaining.

 

WONDER

US, 2017, 113 minutes, Colour.

Julia Roberts, Jacob Tremblay, Owen Wilson, Mandy Patinkin, Noah Jupe, Daveed Diggs, Navji Jeter, Bryce Gheiser.

Directed by Steve Chbosky.

Wonder is an appealing example of the feel-good film. Yes, it is highly emotional and often wears its heart on its sleeve. However, it is a film which believes in the basic goodness of human nature.

Before going into see this film, everybody will know that is about a young boy who has facial deformities, craniofacial difficulties, a very difficult birth, 27 operations for plastic surgery enabling him to both hear and to see well. As Auggie remarks, “it took 27 operations of plastic surgery to make me look this good!”.

Strong praise is deserved by the actor, Jacob Tremblay. He made such an impression in the film, Room, playing Oscar-winning Brie Larsen’s small son, that many thought he deserved an Oscar nomination himself. As Auggie here, he is completely believable and compelling. And he is aged 10.

It was a very smart move to cast Julia Roberts as Auggie’s mother. Ever popular, but not so frequently on screen in recent years, she is both strong and loving as Auggie’s mother, Isabel, who experienced the hardships of his difficult birth, has given up any hopes of a career and completing her thesis or developing her drawing skills, completely devoting herself to her son, even to homeschooling. Julia Roberts’ fans will respond warmly to this film.

And, it was a very smart move, and a surprising one, to cast Owen Wilson, usually in comic roles, as Nate, Auggie’s ever-supportive father. Owen Wilson fits very well into this role. Very strong support is given by Izabella Vidovic as Via, Auggie’s older sister who had wanted a little brother when she was four but has had to accept always being in the background as the attention is given to her little brother. In fact, she goes to high school, suffers the unexpected spurning by her best friend but then is encouraged by a fellow student rehearsing for performance of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, she does get the benefit of her innate goodness and self-sacrifice.

Auggie goes to school. The students stare. They don’t sit with him in the dining area. They are puzzled, some insulting, and, especially, Julian (Bryce Gheiser) who is one of those deputed to be kind to Auggie is guilty of some cruel bullying (and when the principal takes him to task in front of his parents, his mother is the most disagreeable character in the whole film making us realise that while everybody has goodness in them, there are some exceptions!). One of the other students, Jack (Noah Jupe, Matt Damon’s son in Suburbicon,) has some friendly moments, some bad moments, but an apology and a strong friendship.

Without a doubt, we will the audience who might have felt like staring at Auggie when we first saw him on screen, will almost imperceptibly go beyond the appearances, almost forgetting them, as we understand and appreciate the reality of Auggie as a person.

While the film ends in affirmation and newly – why not? They can be enough tragedy and pain in life so we can rejoice in and with those who rejoice.