UNESCO rolls out first African MOOC on freedom of expression and safety of journalists
Melbourne, July, 14th, 2017 (Peter Malone). Below, find the second part of film critics written by Peter Malone for the month of July.
- MONSTER CALLS, A
- MUMMY, The
- MY COUSIN RACHEL
- ROUGH NIGHT
- SHACK, The
- SPIDERMAN: HOMECOMING
- TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT
- VILLAINESS, The
A MONSTER CALLS
UK/Spain, 2016, 108 minutes, Colour.
Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebble, voice of Liam Neeson.
Directed by J.A.Bayona.
The tone of the title of this film may put off many an audience who would benefit by seeing it. It sounds like monster film – and it is, only the monster is a different kind of monster, terrifying, yes, but a moralising monster.
The film is based on a novel by Patrick Ness and directed by Spanish J. A. Bayona who directed the tsunami film, The Impossible.
The setting is an English town where Conor (Lewis MacDougall in a persuasive performance, both sympathetic and abrasive), aged 12, small for his age, lives with his mother (a rather sweet and fey Felicity Jones) who is undergoing a variety of treatments for a terminal illness, most of them not working for her benefit. Conor is very close to his mother, relying on her, especially after his repetitive nightmares, at 12.07 during the night. His father has left the family and has gone to California, marrying again and having another child. Also present in the town is Conor’s severe grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), concerned about her daughter’s health, disdaining her son-in-law, not really clicking at all with Conor.
Another pressure on Conor is his being severely bullied at school, mocked, punched and kicked by disdainful fellow-students who resent him living in his own world, finally deciding that they would not even see him. There is a kindly teacher of maths who offers to help but Conor is too reserved.
In fact, Conor’s father (Toby Kebble) comes for a visit from America, takes his son out, tries to help, inviting him to visit America but saying that the new household is too crowded for him to come to live with him.
And the monster? He truly has the look of the monster, rather gigantic, a huge tree come to life, bark and branches but with intense eyes, often red, with the voice of Liam Neeson who can be both menacing and encouraging. As he appears, he tries to instruct Conor, urging him to be assertive, trying to throw light on how sad he is as well as angry. The method of the monster is to tell three stories with unanticipated moral endings to make Conor think and to tell his story so that he might understand the truth about himself. There is the story of the Prince who resents his grandfather’s remarrying, branding his wife is a witch, intending to marry a fine girl but finding her murdered – and a surprise reassessment of who was the villain. In the second story, a greedy apothecary heals people but is denounced by the local parson, the monster wreaking some vengeance on the parson for giving up his beliefs rather than on the apothecary. There is a brief third story about a man who cannot be seen, is allowed to be seen but still feels alone.
This leads to a dramatic sequence where the monster seems to be encouraging Conor’s anger and he has an extraordinary outburst, destructive, in his grandmother’s house.
Ultimately, through another nightmare, Conor begins to realise the truth about himself, the pain that he is experiencing, his love for his mother and having to accept her illness and death.
Many parents may well identify with the characters in this film. So will any children who have suffered similar experiences. In this way, A Monster Calls is a very challenging film, a family film in the sense that it is about family and suffering.
US, 2017, 110 minutes, Colour.
Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe, Annabelle Wallis, Sofia Boutella, Jake Johnson, Courtney B. Vance.
Directed by Alex Kurtzman.
If one is going to do a new version of The Mummy, then it might as well be like this. It is Saturday matinee material, reminiscent of the old-style serials with their cliffhangers and rapidly moving on to the next episode, a series of adventures.
It has not been designed for older audiences who may remember previous versions, especially with Boris Karloff way back when, and have put the 30s film on a kind of pedestal, forgetting how creaky it is, and was. This is a film for younger audiences or for those who are getting a bit older but still have fond memories of Indiana Jones.
There are quite some variations on the old Mummy stories, initially setting the action in present-day Iraq with the consciousness of American military presence, of strategies, of some of the exploitation of ancient history by some reckless soldiers, despite all the efforts of serious historical excavations.
And, this time, the Mummy is female, Ahmanet, a sinister figure from the past who wanted to be Pharaoh, killed her father whom she loved, killed his wife and their child so that she can ascend to power – with some, locations about Seth, the god of death, and the execution of Ahmanet as well as her imprisonment and entombment.
So, very 21st-century, with Tom Cruise as Nick, perhaps a little over-buoyant, still active despite his 54 years of age, lots of derring-do, escape from Iraq, a plane with flocks crashing into it and disabling the engines, saving the leader of the diggings, Jenny (Annabelle Wallis) with the only parachute before it crashes outside London. In the meantime, there are excavations under buildings in London and the finding of a crusader cemetery from the Middle Ages which, as we have seen, contains the precious stone which is needed to be placed in the deadly knife of Ahmanet to make it an all-powerful weapon.
And, while it is 21st-century, who should be in charge of excavations and research but Henry Jekyll (and, in case, the Robert Louis Stevenson connection is missed, he later metamorphoses into Mr Hyde, but in the 21st century, Eddie Hyde!). He is played in the British grandee manner and accent by Russell Crowe, sounding for all the world like Jack Thompson in his enunciation and declarative tones – and resembling Jack Thompson in his more portly present incarnation! He does get the chance to go to London East End when speaking as Eddie Hyde.
Not only does Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) rise from the dead but so do some of the Egyptian guards as well as some of the crusaders, all in the aggressive spirit of the living dead.
One of the troubles for Nick is that Ahmanet has taken more than a shine to him, preserving him from injuries, setting him up to be an incarnation of Seth. Which is all the more complicated because he has a romantic bond with Jenny.
The film is full of CGI, stunts and action, rapidly paced, not requiring the audience to give it too much deeper thought, although it relies on audience response to good versus evil and the defeat of evil whether it be from diabolical outside influence or from inner malice.
This is the first of Universal’s new series, Dark Universe, where there will be remakes of all those old Universal horror films from the 1930s and 1940s. Look out for the Bride Frankenstein and The Invisible Man.
MY COUSIN RACHEL
UK, 2017, 106 minutes, Colour.
Rachel Weisz, Sam Claflin, Iain Glenn, Holliday Grainger, Simon Russell Beale.
Directed by Roger Michell.
Daphne du Maurier’s novels were very popular in the earlier decades of the 20th century. Several of them were filmed, most notably Hitchcock’s version of Rebecca (Oscar-winner as best film of 1940). There was also a version of her smugglers story, Jamaica Inn, later filmed in two television miniseries as well as Frenchman’s Creek. She was also the author of the novel which was the basis for Hitchcock’s The Birds. But, there was another version of the novel, My Cousin Rachel, 1952, with Olivia de Haviland in the title role and the young Richard Burton playing her cousin. Now, 65 years later, here is another version.
The film takes us back to Cornwall in the 19th century, the kind of location that many audiences enjoy (thinking of versions of Thomas Hardy’s novels like Far from the Madding Crowd). The film opens with helicopter shots of fields, jagged cliffs, the beach and a bay. And, the central character, Philip Ashley, wondering about what Rachel has done and her responsibilities. And this is where the action comes back to at the end.
Audiences will enjoy the recreation of this 19th-century world, a country mansion, an estate and farm, the local town, costumes and decor, and attention to detail of life in those times. And, there is also an excursion to Tuscany.
The story is told from the point of view of Philip Ashley, played in a brooding manner by Sam Claflin, about to turn 25, an orphan adopted by his cousin who, for health reasons, went to Italy where he met Rachel and married her. Now he is dead. Philip peruses letters that his cousin Ambrose had written, strong suggestions that Rachel had conspired to kill him. Angrily, Philip goes to Italy, meets Rachel’s advisor, Rainaldi, but fails to meet Rachel.
Suddenly, he discovers that Rachel is in England and is coming to visit, enraging him the more. As might be expected from this kind of melodrama, Rachel is not at all what he thought she was, she is able to control him, charms everyone at the farm, Philip’s Godfather and his daughter, and Philip is infatuated. With Rachel Weisz as Rachel, there is no difficulty in appreciating why Philip becomes infatuated.
Of course, the importance for the audience is that we are never sure of what Rachel has done or not done, but how she controls Philip, about his motivation, willingly giving her his mother’s jewels, wanting to hand over the whole estate to her.
So, the film is about appearances, innuendo, suspicions, obsessions – which may or may not be justified and which lead to some unforeseen disastrous consequences.
There is a good supporting cast including Iain Glenn as the godfather and Holliday Granger is his daughter he would like Philip to marry. British theatre actor, Simon Russell Beale, appears as the local solicitor. Adaptor-director is Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Changing Lanes).
The appeal is to an older audience, one which relishes revisiting the British past and which is willingly caught up in emotional melodrama.
US/ Germany, 2017, 92 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Laura Poitras.
Julian Assange has been in the public eye for over a decade with his establishing of WikiLeaks and the diffusion of so much information on his website.
This film presupposes that the audience is well aware of the background of WikiLeaks and takes up the situation for Assange in 2010, his being interviewed by Laura Poitras who has continued to film him over several years with Risk as the culmination of her following his life and career. In the meantime, she was instrumental in filming Edward Snowden in Hong Kong after he left the United States in 2013 (and appears as a character, played by Melissa Leo, in Oliver Stone’s film Snowden).
Audiences have had mixed reactions towards Assange and his role with WikiLeaks and mixed reactions towards him as a person. There was an interesting film about him as a teenager, Robert Connolly’s Underground: the Julian Assange Story. Celebrated documentary maker, Alex Gibney, made a significant documentary, We Steal Secrets. Then there was the feature film, The Fifth Estate, directed by Bill Condon, with Benedict Cumberbatch playing Assange – not a particularly sympathetic character.
In the early part of this film, he does appear more sympathetic, younger looking than might have been expected. He is fairly articulate, seen on the phone, in contact with the US State Department, discussing Hillary Clinton and the downloading of leaks. He lives comfortably in Norfolk, giving interviews, with his loyal assistant working hard, Sarah Harrison, as well as other staff members.
However, with the charges of a sexual nature brought against him in Sweden, the hostility of the American government and his status in the United Kingdom, the film spends some time showing him and his decision to go to the Ecuadorian embassy in London. He went there in June 2011 – and this film was released five years later with him still being in the embassy.
With Laura Portrais, who says she felt that Assange did not particularly like her, he becomes involved in the situation of Edward Snowden as well as of Bradley Manning and Manning being sentenced to 35 years imprisonment for revealing secrets to the media (with later information that President Obama pardoned Manning who had, in prison, undergone a sex change as well as attempting suicide twice).
There is a gap of three years with the status quo concerning Assange and the embassy, a peculiar interview with a peculiar Lady Gaga, resuming with Hillary Clinton’s campaign, WikiLeaks involvement and the discussions of the Russian connection in revealing secrets about Hillary Clinton’s campaign and attitudes towards campaigner Bernie Sanders. Then there is the Trump victory – but with the head of the FBI, James Comey, being interrogated by Senate committee about the Russian connection. After the film was made, the situation became far more complex in real life with the former FBI chief fired by Trump and being interrogated about Trump and the Russians and the campaign.
Not the final word on Julian Assange but an overview and an update for 2017.
US, 2017, 101 minutes, Colour.
Scarlett Johansson, Jillian Bell, Zoe Kravitz, Ilana Glazer, Kate McKinnon, Paul W.Downs, Ryan Cooper, Ty Burrell, Demi Moore.
Directed by Lucia Aniello.
Rough Night is one of those raucous American comedies with a difference. Instead of males behaving badly it is females behaving badly.
We are introduced to the central characters as young women, going to college, college life and parties, their friendships, ambitions, bonding. Then we move to 10 years later and, with some of the women, things have changed.
It is a surprise to see Scarlett Johansson with a role as an ordinary character after seeing her as one of The Avengers as well is the range of science-fiction futuristic films in which she has appeared like Lucy, Under the Skin, and her voice in Her. This time she is Jess, with political ambitions, involved in a campaign, looking for funding, wanting to keep her reputation, and engaged to Peter (played by Paul W. Downs, cowriter of this film with his real-life partner, Lucia Aniello).
The other members of the group are Frankie and Blair, who had something of a relationship in the past while one has gone on to marry but is in the middle of an angry divorce while the other still has the touch of the bohemian and is involved all in all kinds of social protests. The audience is very conscious of the presence of Alice, played by Jillian Bell, whose bombastic comedy style needs to be taken in rather smaller doses.
And then, into the scene comes Jess’s friend from Australia, Pippa, played with her usual strong comic style by Kate McKinnon. And she has an interesting Australian accent as well as some Australian slang – though there are touches of New Zealandish in her accent and, her new friends mix her up nationally and she gets the nickname Kiwi.
Of course, the expected things happen. Decisions are made about how much to drink when they go out to the clubs. Decisions are made about whether they will snort cocaine – which they do. They have the beach house of a friend – and come across the over-amorous neighbours, played by Ty Burrell and Demi Moore, who are interested in in more open relationships (which is rather tested later in connection with their having surveillance cameras).
One of the cautions about the cameras is that arrangements have been made for a stripper to turn up and, in the excitement, Alice bumps into him and he hits his head, bleeds and dies. And so, we are in the territory of Weekend with Bernie of so many decades ago: what to do with the corpse, move the corpse or not, different methods of getting rid of the corpse. One of the ideas is to prop him up in the car to get rid of him. Another is to go down to the beach and send him out to sea – and their not anticipating his tidal return.
Jess keeps in touch with Peter who is at his very, very sedate and genteel stag party, he and his friends sitting round a table doing a rather elitist wine-tasting! But, anxious about Jess’s phone calls and their uncertainty, he jumps into a car, pepped up by some drugs, wearing a nappy to avoid pitstops, but gets into trouble on the way to Florida at a service station, with money, and pulled over by the police.
There is a twist about the stripper, not being exactly who the girls thought he was which leads them into all kinds of trouble with some criminals posing as police, interrogating and terrorising them – but with Jess to the rescue.
Happy ending – but, for those who have enjoyed the film, it is well worth waiting until the scene with the final credits, despite its focusing on Alice, where there is an enjoyable revelation of the plot twist.
US, 2017, 132 minutes, Colour.
Sam Worthington, Octavia Spencer, Tim McGraw, Radha Mitchell, Megan Charpentier, Gage Munroe, Amelie Eve, Avraham Aviv Alush, Sumire Matsubara, Alice Braga, Graham Greene.
Directed by Stuart Hazeldine.
An important warning: if an audience is not prepared to spend two hours reflecting on God, imagining God, challenging God about evil and suffering, whether the audience consists of believers or non-believers, then better to stay away. This is definitely a film about God.
The Shack was a religious bestseller and is now brought to the screen in the tradition of the faith-based films. As has been said, there is quite a deal of explicit religious talk and imagery, not necessarily persuasive for every culture because this is quite American and may not appeal to other sensibilities. However, in the spirit of openness, there is a great deal to commend in The Shack.
It has a basically significant narrative, an introduction to the central character, Mack (Sam Worthington) who is treated harshly by his alcoholic father, also an elder in the church. This means that Mack does not have a genial image of God as Father. However, he marries Nan (Radha Mitchell) and they have three children. They attend the local evangelical church, and are encouraged by a friendly neighbour, Will (Tim McGraw – also supplies some of the songs for the background).
There is a rather harrowing flashback while Mack is clearing snow from the front of the house, slips and falls on his head and loses consciousness. He remembers the family going on a picnic and, in the middle of a happy event, the youngest daughter, Missy, is abducted. This has an even worse effect on Mack and his anger, resentments, attitude towards God.
This is where the screenplay runs the risk of being too twee but also dares itself to make God images explicit.
Mack finds in his letterbox a typed message from God, signed Papa (one of the twee aspects that might be a bit offputting). Mack is invited to go back to the shack where they previously searched for Missy. Borrowing Will’s truck and leaving him stranded, Mack heads off to the mountains, to the wintry shack, taking a gun.
And this is where the film begins its quite significant surprises. Mack is led from the winter into a beautiful summer landscape, flowers and gardens, a lake, a comfortable house. The audience has previously seen Octavia Spencer give the young Mack a slice of pie but here she is, admitting to Mack when he asks that she is I Am. The man who has led Mack is, in fact, Jesus himself and the woman who appears is the Spirit. Interestingly, God is maternal, and African-American woman, Jesus is played by an Israeli actor and the Spirit is played by Japanese actor.
Later, Mack will be led to a cave to an experience with Wisdom, played by Brazilian actress, colours broker, and a further journey for him to test his capacity for forgiveness, where I Am is played by a Native American Indian, Graham Greene. (So, the Everyman in need of conversion is an American white male – though he is played by an Australian as is Nan, his wife).
As has been mentioned, the challenge of the film is to imagine the Trinity in human form, I Am as creator and sustainer, a jovial and genial Jesus (including walking on water and Mack and Jesus sprinting on water), and a dignified Spirit-figure who is creative in her garden.
But the screenplay also incorporates many of the issues which test those who question cultural in human suffering. Some prefer a more philosophical/theological discussion about the nature of God. Here, it is conversation, in human terms, where God is able to talk about being so preoccupied with pain that vision of hope is lost, that God shares in the grief and pain, and is desperate to be with people in suffering. In an interesting touch, the wound of the nail is seen in the wrist of cab I Am. (God has experienced suffering through Jesus’ passion.)
Mack’s experience can be seen as a spiritual journey, dark nights, glimpses of God, the holy, and experience of spiritual direction. And, in the vein of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation, the message is that violence and cruelty cannot be excused but they can be forgiven.
This is the kind of faith-based film that serves as a confirming of faith rather than a proselytising experience.
US, 2017, 133 minutes, Colour.
Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr, Marisa Tomei Jon Favreau, Gwyneth Paltrow, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier, Tony Revelori, Bokeem Woodbine, Tyne Daly. Michael Chernus.
Directed by Jon Watts.
Not exactly the word that comes to mind to describe a Spiderman movie. But, this is a Spiderman story at its chirpiest!
There was Toby Maguire, creating a contemporary Spiderman but, perhaps, a little too old. Then there was Andrew Garfield, again a contemporary Spiderman but, perhaps, a little too serious and severe. Old, serious and severe do not at all apply to Tom Holland’s presence and performance. He is very engaging, credible as a 15-year-old teenager at school, trying to find how best to fulfil his mission as Spiderman (as well is to keep it secret from his friends, the villains – and his Aunt May).
This new Spiderman made an appearance in the climax of 2016 is Captain America: Civil War. He seemed like Spiderman but there was no engaging communication of his personality. This film more than makes up for that. He finds himself, after his collaboration with The Avengers in the previous film, in a kind of internship with Tony Stark, being given his costume, allowed to intervene, but responsible to Tony Stark’s servant-collaborator, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau who, in fact, appeared in the Iron Man films as well is directing the first two by Iron Man films).
Robert Downey reappears as Tony Stark at various times throughout the film, reminiscing about how his father treated him and how he ought to treat Peter Parker but also reinforcing his sardonic tone.
The potential villain is introduced right at the beginning of the film, Michael Keaton as a scrap metal entrepreneur with his own staff, working on material from aliens, but suddenly closed down without explanation by government authorities (embodied by Tyne Daly) but deciding to go on his own resentful and evil way.
However, a lot of the action takes place in school, especially in the anticipation of the Homecoming Dance. In fact, there are a whole lot of high-school-jinx in the vein of those popular 80s film is by John Hughes like The Breakfast Club. And, there is quite a lot of ironic and verbal humour in much of the dialogue.
While this Peter Parker is much younger than has been the case, Aunt May is also much younger, and played by Marisa Tomei. There is no quoting Peter’s uncle about great power requiring great responsibility but a moral from Iron Man himself, that if Peter Parker thinks he is not worthy without his Spiderman costume, then he is not worthy to be Spiderman. This is a motivation that keeps Peter going, reviving him when he is tempted to give up.
The screenplay intermingles the high school material with Spiderman (sometimes actually making mistakes in his heroism) confronting bank robbers which will lead him to a confrontation with Michael Keaton who has invented a huge winged disguise as Vulture.
As always, Peter is always disappearing to go on Spiderman missions, something rather disconcerting for his girlfriend, with whom he is very shy, Liz (Laura Harrier). However, a new character is introduced, Ned (Jacob Batalon), Peter’s best friend, who does discover the truth, becomes involved in the adventures, is a computer and science whiz, of course, but a bit on the heavy side. With his character, and some Asian background, with several African-American characters, with a mixed-race marriage and daughter, quite a lot is made about multi-ethnic background.
Before the final confrontation, there are two quite exciting set-pieces, a rescue after a collapse of the top of the Washington Memorial in Washington and an attack on the Staten Island Ferry, its being split apart but a successful rescue. All this quite pacey.
There is an interesting dramatic twist at the end which gives some more intensity to the final, very elaborate fight and confrontation with Vulture.
And a final urging that it is worth sitting through the credits for the final minute where Captain America, who is seen giving TV morale-boosting sessions throughout the film, appears very amusingly to send us on our way having been well entertained by this Spiderman story.
TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT
US, 2017, 149 minutes, Colour.
Mark Warburg, Anthony Hopkins, Josh Duhamel, Laura Haddock, Stanley Tucci, John Turturro, Glenn Morshower, Gemma Chan, Tony Hale, Maggie Steed, Phoebe Nichols. Voices of: Peter Cullen, Frank Welker, Eric Aadahl, John Goodman, Ken Watanabe, Jim Carter, Steve Buscemi, Omar Sy, Reno Wilson.
Directed by Michael Bay.
This is the fifth instalment in Michael Bay’s series of Transformer movies. Originating in the 20th century as Hasbro toys, and with films in animation style, the series has now become huge, with mammoth productions of action and effects – and particularly loud.
It can be said that the series is really critic-proof. Box-office dwarfs critical response. And, for more than 20 years, critics have had it in, so to speak, for Michael Bay, almost unanimously condemning his films as mindless, big and bombastic. In fact, they are usually big and bombastic but employ a different mind-set from that of the critics. All that is left to do is really indicate aspects of the films for the fans. Because, it is only the fans who will go to see them.
The writers of this episode must have been watching Game of Thrones very carefully because they come up with the idea that the Transformers actually arrived on Earth from outer space and taken refuge in a cave in ye olde England. Down in the pre-Camelot valleys, King Arthur and his knights are battling against savage Saxons, against overwhelming odds. Merlin (Stanley Tucci doing something of a parody) has indicated to Arthur that there is help at hand but, more than a little drunk, (sozzled is his word), he has a hard time persuading the Transformers to come to Arthur’s aid, but they do produce a firebreathing dragon who overwhelmingly wins the day.
The reason that this is not well-known is that it has been kept secret by descendants of Merlin, waiting for the day when a hero will come, or heroine, who will find the Transformers staff and participate in a cosmic battle to save the planet Cyber Tron as well as the humans on Earth destroy the influence of the evil quintessence and her plans to obliterate Earth.
And that time is now.
Actually, Optimists Prime has disappeared from Earth as his Megatron. Optimists Prime is being deluded by Quintessa Cybertron to persuade him to turn on his Earth friends.
A lot of this information is given by Anthony Hopkins, an English lord, with a marvellous castle, who holds most of the secrets but knows that it is time for a chosen one to come to the aid of the Transformers and of humans. The chosen one is Cade Yeager, Mark Wahlberg, strong American hero from the previous films. However, there is need for a descendant of Merlin and she is personified in an Oxford professor, multiple degrees, Vivian, Laura Haddock.
In the meantime, there is a special force in the United States destined to hunt down the Transformers and get rid of them. However, the Transformers who remain on earth seem to be a generally playful lot, providing touches of humorous special effects. If the Transformers have acclimatised with broad American accents and, Anthony Hopkins’ servant, the epitome of British upstairs/downstairs.
A lot of the action takes place in Britain, especially an all-stops-out special effects battle including Optimus Prime, Megatron, Quintessa and battling Transformers along with the saviours, Cade and Vivian.
And, before the final credits, it seems that there is, at last, peace on earth, but…
UK, 2016, 94 minutes, Colour.
Rooney Mara, Ben Mendelsohn, Ruby Stokes, Riz Ahmed, Tobias Menzies, Tara Fitzgerald, Natasha Little.
Directed by Benedict Andrews.
This is a challenging film. Sexual abuse of a minor. The involvement of the minor in a relationship. The vulnerability of a 13-year-old girl and an infatuation with a neighbour. The neighbour taking advantage of the girl but denying that he was a predator. The role of the courts, prison sentences. And the consequences for the girl as she grows up, the psychological damage, coping or not. And the consequences for the offender.
Quite strong content for a film that runs just over 90 minutes. Much of its strength, especially in the dialogue and the confrontations, comes from the fact that it was an award-winning play, Blackbird, by David Harrower who has adapted his play for the screen and has a stage director, Benedict Andrews, making his first film for cinema.
The other great strength of the film is in the casting, with American Rooney Mara as the adult Una, an English girl, and Australian Ben Mendelsohn as Ray, the neighbour. Also significant is the performance and presence of the young Ruby Stokes as Una at 13.
In fact, the film does not seem like a play. It moves backwards and forwards in two time zones, the time of the abuse, as well as the present when Una has tracked down Ray and wants to meet and confront him. There are also a variety of locations, the home, the nightclub, the factory where Ray works, a focus on the interiors of the factory, the vast spaces for production, the narrow spaces for officers and locker rooms, creating quite an atmosphere for the confrontation, Ray’s home and his stepdaughter’s bedroom.
Other characters are also involved, Una’s mother, concerned but ineffectual (Tara Fitzgerald), one of the workers at the factory who becomes involved (Riz Ahmed) and Ray’s wife (Natasha Little).
The action in the present takes place over a day, concentrating on Una going to the factory, finding Ray, not having seen him for 17 years (with some flashbacks to her behaviour in the courtroom, the video connection appeal to Ray during the trial).
The confrontation is one of the main points of seeing the film. How does a woman in her late 20s act, remembering the past, the violent reaction of her father against her, not necessarily having dealt well with the affair and the consequences? How does a man who has served his sentence for the offence rebuild his life, change his name, marry?
An important question that is raised is Ray’s continued denial that he is a paedophile, that this affair was a single occasion. Another important question is the complexity of Una’s past love, the attraction, and whether that can be kindled again.
The film does not spell out answers to these questions. Rather, it gives many clues either way, moments of evidence for the audience, like a jury, to weigh the truth of what Una says and does and whether Ray is, in fact, a paedophile. In this way, the end of the film is similar to Doubt, the film where Meryl Streep as the local nun accuses Philip Seymour Hoffman, a priest, of sexual abuse. Doubts on either side raised, leaving the audience to ponder, to reflect and test their own attitudes.
THE VILLAINESS/ AK- NYEO
Korea, 2017, 129 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Byung-gil Jung.
One of the reasons why The Villainess will be remembered is that in the first five minutes it probably holds the record for the highest body count in any film, Kill Bill included (and perhaps some Tarantino envy). And, while not quite in the same league, the finale also has a high body count. That piece of information will indicate to audiences whether they want to see this film on not.
But, there is more to the film and the extraordinarily edited acrobatics of those first five minutes, the continual onslaught of attacking men, dispatched by the female of the title. This is the story about that woman, called the villainess, which is rather hard on her and her reputation. She is not a villainess in the ordinary understanding of the word. She is not a malevolent plotter.
Audiences have to keep their attention highly acute as the screenplay moves from the present, back into the past, relying on different haircuts, some plastic surgery alterations, so that they can understand whether they are watching flashbacks or the continuing narrative.
A young girl, in China, is distraught at the death of her father and wants revenge on his killers. She is taken on by a criminal, cruel but charming towards the young woman, marrying her, making her pregnant, but ensuring that she is a skilled killer.
A secret organisation from Korea takes her over, introducing her to a strange formation program with a number of women who are training to be agents. They have all kinds of skills besides the martial arts, cooking, theatrical training and performance. They also have a member of the supervising team companion to the woman as a project – although the young man allotted to this task falls in love with the woman and is eager to take care of her baby daughter.
The woman is promised freedom after 10 years working for the organisation, supervised by a strong-minded woman as the chief.
When she fails in one of her commissions, actually to shoot her former husband, her place in the organisation begins to unravel, and she becomes the victim of a jealous rival.
As has been said, film goes back and forth, filling in the background gradually, in following the woman, her maternal instincts, her loving union with the agent as her husband, her theatrical performances – which all leads to, as anticipated, a final confrontation, her vindication, though with great sadness and the death of those dear to her, with bloodthirsty consequences.
Korea has built up a reputation for producing this kind of complex action film, very explicit in its action sequences and massacres, but with some psychological story and underpinning.
US, 2017, 94 minutes, Colour.
Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Judy Greer, Isabella Amara, Cheryl Hines, Margo Martindale, David Warshawsky.
Directed by Craig Johnson.
The best thing about this comedy drama is the performance by Woody Harrelson as Wilson. He is very much an oddball character in an oddball comedy. In some ways, with all his flaws and foibles, He is something of the 20th century-21st-century Everyman.
As might be expected, we first see him waking up, living alone except for his pet dog, middle-aged, the touch of the scruffy, with no explanation of whether he works or not, or what is his source of income. He doesn’t seem to worry about this at all. Perhaps, neither should we.
While Wilson has something of a good heart, he is also very direct in the way that he thinks, feels and, definitely, expresses himself to others. No filters! He has no friends to speak of, pleads with one not to move to St Louis from Minnesota, visits another to rekindle friendship only to find that this man is the embodiment of negativity and bitterness. Wilson will chat to people – as we see him imposing on an IT businessman, trying to sleep or to listen to his Walkman, in a train. And chatting with an IT-addicted woman would like to go on a date, in the diner.
Then we learn more about Wilson, his memories of his mother, his going to see his dying father who passes away without saying a word, something Wilson needs. Then we learn that his wife, Pippi, left him 17 years earlier, problems with drugs, pregnant and saying she would have an abortion.
Which means then that Wilson has been living like this for 17 years. A lonely and isolated life, despite himself.
But the IT lady googles his wife and finds links to her sister with Wilson then tracking her down as a waitress in a restaurant, trying to get her life back in order, something of a waif -like middle-aged woman (Laura Dern) who reveals that she did not have an abortion, had sent him the documents, had received no reply and had the girl adopted.
Having found Pippi, Wilson and is determined to find his daughter, Claire, readily getting information, tracking her down with Pippi, coming to her aid when she is bullied at school, not holding back in revealing who he is and who Pippi is, sharing some happy events with Claire, even taking her to see Pippi’s sister – and ill-fated venture which ends with Pippi and Holly fighting each other and charges of abduction for Wilson.
Wilson even glides through his prison sentence, despite some bashings, gradually ingratiating himself with everyone so that when he emerges from prison, and goes to see his neighbour Shelley (Judy Greer) who has minded his dog, there is some hope – though some disappointments in Pippi and some surprises with Claire…
Perhaps it does one some good sharing the life, hopes and disappointments of somebody so different in an oddball way.