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More than a history lesson
23 June 2012
You could dismiss this film as a Danish history lesson but it is more than that. It is a love story with an improbable background in a rather gloomy setting, the Danish Court of the late 18th century. Mad (or at least seriously disturbed) King Christian VII (Mikkel Folsgaard - superbe) marries 16 year old English princess Caroline (Alicia Vikander) who happens to be George III's sister). He prefers the company of his dog and mistress to her. It is not surprising that Caroline falls for Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) who becomes the king's personal physician on the strength of his knowledge of Shakespeare (especially Hamlet). The king is, as they say, easily led, and for a year or so Sturensee, despite being German, has a fine time as de facto ruler enacting liberal measures such as the abolition of serfdom and the repeal of censorship laws, not to mention free smallpox inoculations. But the forces of reaction led by the king's stepmother gather. It was surprising to learn that 18th century Denmark was such a backward society.

Mads Mikkelsen gives a nuanced performance – 'quiet intensity' in fact, and Alicia Vikander is equally intense. They are a serious couple imbued with the ideals of the 18th century Enlightenment but their passion is physical as well as intellectual. Unfortunately their ideals are a little advanced for Denmark of the 1770s despite support from writers such as Voltaire. The local book-burners led by Hoegh-Guldberg (David Dencik) are not swayed by argument of course.

The production is full of atmosphere. The castles are suitably gloomy and there's plenty of medieval squalor beyond the castle gate. Much of the action takes place in winter which adds to the chilly atmosphere. The aristocracy are suitably heartless and the peasants downtrodden. The king provides some zany (if not quite authentic) moments, appointing his Great Dane to his council and ordering Struensee to make Caroline a "fun queen".

This is quite a long movie at 140 minutes yet is enthralling from start to finish. Even though you can guess the ending you are swept along by the story and the performances. You can see why the audiences at Cannes loved it.
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The Artist (I) (2011)
A silent for today
17 March 2012
Warning: Spoilers
This is a very cunning piece of work- original only in its audacity- a tribute to the silent era in the shape of a silent movie about the era's end. What Michel Haznaravicius has done is to re-arrange the clichés of the early pictures to produce a film perfectly watchable by today's audience. The Academy went overboard and gave it five Oscars (best movie, director, costume, music and actor) but, hey, this is a movie for those who love movies. Apparently it cost $15 million to make and was filmed in 37 days, recovering nearly three times that at the American box office alone. Being silent (apart from the rich musical soundtrack) it should do pretty well in non-English speaking markets as well.

The artist himself, George Valetin (Jean Dujardin, made for the part), is a combination of Douglas Fairbanks senior and Errol Flynn (the latter of course did not start in movies until the early thirties). Handsome, dashing and acclaimed, as his career tanks with the advent of talkies, he finds refuge in the bottle. Meanwhile his one-time fan Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) prospers in the new medium, especially in song and dance.

Silents were a repository of family values and this is reflected here – I don't remember seeing more than a chaste kiss between George and Peppy. Supporting characters like James Cromwell as George's faithful chauffeur inhabit familiar roles. One thing this movie does not have is a baddie - no damsel in distress tied to the train tracks. John Goodman (delightful as always) the cigar chomping studio head is merely recognising the inevitable in laying off George who himself proves the point by producing a spectacular box office failure. Incidentally, it is the Wall St crash which wipes out George financially though his production failure would not have helped.

What this film does superbly is put today's viewers in the seats of the silent cinema. ("Silent" is something of a misnomer since the showing was usually accompanied by music, though not usually as elaborate as here) As a time capsule this film is near perfect and no special knowledge is needed to understand it. We are kept enthralled despite suspecting we might be in for an upbeat ending. The whole thing is well done. Maybe there was more drama in the Descendants, but Oscar did at least recognise here the superb production values – an Artist's film indeed.
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cheerful class comedy
13 January 2012
Set in the Parisian upper middle class mileu in the 1960s.Jean-Louis, a stuffy middle aged stockbroker's life is transformed when he becomes involved with the bright and cheerful Spanish maids resident in the top floor of his Apartment block. The maids are all from poverty-stricken backgrounds, all with different reasons to be domestics. Maria the youngest is soon the object of Jean –Louis' desire, a serious matter to Jean Louis' wife who throws him out, allowing him to move to a tiny storeroom on the sixth floor. Jean-Louis realises he has a room of his own for the first time in his life. The other maids are generally accepting of Jean Louis as they are of each other. In fact they are very much a mutual support group –a veritable family, in fact.

This was a bright and cheerful film, with a little social commentary at the fringes. The atmosphere in the stockbrokers office compares very unfavourably with that of the sixth floor. Jean Louis 's wife attitudes change but rather late in the day. This film perhaps could be entitled the liberation of Jean-Louis since it he who breaks free, but the social changes of the 60s are all around.

All the minor characters are superbly drawn, the ghastly concierge, the two toffy-nosed children, the office minions and of course the maids themselves. Set in 1962, but the class issues are still with us today though the maids are more likely to be African than Spanish
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The Iron Lady (2011)
Inside the iron lady
27 December 2011
Margaret Thatcher was the first woman prime minister of Great Britain (1979-1990) and probably one of the more divisive. The grocer's daughter was a professional politician from her early thirties after a brief spell as a barrister specialising in tax, a senior minister in the Heath conservative government (1970-74) then leader of the conservatives in opposition from 1975 before becoming Prime Minister in 1979.

This movie is not an account of the iron lady's career, but is a character study through a kind of interior monologue, as, in the grip of old age, she recalls her tumultuous career. The design of the film means that the casting of Maggie Thatcher is crucial and Meryl Streep rarely misses a beat (the young Maggie is also played well by Alexandra Roach). The scenes of Maggie in her dotage are particularly effective, though I could have done with rather less of them, and more about her career. Meryl has the voice pitch perfect, given that it changed from high pitched to a more authoritative growl as she climbed the greasy pole that is British national politics. Meryl also captures the gait and the body language – it's a quite remarkable performance. The ghostly Denis (he died in 2003) is also superbly played by Jim Broadbent, though he seems a good deal more whimsical than the real Denis.

It was said of Margaret Thatcher that she was the only man in her cabinet and there was no doubting her political courage. Her senior colleagues, played by a galaxy of fine British actors, are not a prepossessing bunch, apart perhaps from her mentor Airey Neave (Nicholas Farrell), tragically killed by an IRA bomb. Her embrace of monetarist economics and antipathy to unions had some destructive consequences, but she changed the face of British politics. The film does not really deal with her policies except perhaps to trace their origins in her background and upbringing (her father the grocer was involved in local body politics). The Falklands war of 1982 does get some screen time, but mainly to make the point that she personally authorised the sinking of the Argentine cruiser "General Belgrano", with the loss of 500 lives.

Margaret Thatcher still lives, an infirm old lady of 86, and is not likely to see the film, but it is interesting how such a self-righteous person as she was might see her life in retrospect. The film gives us one possible answer. According to his memoirs, John Howard as prime minister of Australia (1996-2007) admired Thatcher as a conviction politician but was a good deal more politically astute in implementing his conservative agenda. But he also stayed too long, and lost government and his seat in 2007. Thatcher's nemesis, covered in the film, was the poll tax idea, which she could not see was profoundly inequitable. It was ironic that as a former tax practitioner she forgot that ability to pay has to be at the basis of sensible taxation.
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Love outflanks Nostalgia
10 December 2011
This was a movie both frivolous and serious – a profound fantasy. You might say a typical Woody Allen movie, but this one is one of his better attempts at serio-romantic comedy. Gil (Owen Wilson) is a Woody Allen avatar as he explores two themes, nostalgia and the meaning of love. Gil, a Hollywood screen writer who hankers to be a novelist is engaged to Inez (Rachel McAdam) but when they go to Paris with her parents Gil starts having doubts, fuelled by contact with various famous literary figures of Paris in the 20's who magically appear to Gil as he walks the streets after midnight. F Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Cole Porter (Yves Heck), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) and numerous others all put in an appearance, most of them surprisingly ready to help Gil with his novel and his love life.

Obviously you have to suspend your disbelief here – but the portrayals of these figures by various actors, though uneven, mostly ring true. Gil may well have been dreaming but he finds that the "golden age" of Paris in the twenties is not necessarily better than today – "nostalgia ain't what it used to be", and that love is what conquers death.

Owen Wilson fits the Woody character like a glove, though Woody is not really a Hollywood hack writer. He is complemented by Marion Cotillard as Adriana, his guide through the twenties, from whom he learns about love.

There is a lot of fun along the way, and some minor characters to keep us entertained such as Paul (Michael Sheen) a know-all friend of the couple and a celebrity museum guide (Carla Bruni – President Sarkozy's spouse). Paris is also a character, photogenic, and presented in strong light for the day bits and warm yellow tones after dark. The film will certainly not discourage tourism there, at least at the deluxe end of the market – the hotels are 5 star and limos are everywhere. The scripts sparkles - Woody seeks to entertain as well as philosophise - and here he succeeds at both.
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The Guard (2011)
Tale of an authentic Irish Hero
5 November 2011
"Welcome to Connemara" says a roadside sign glimpsed from time to time in this entertaining movie, but this part of the west of Ireland is portrayed as being distinctly dangerous. Even prior to the opening titles there is a fatal road crash, and Guard (Irish policeman) Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) soon has a murder on his hands, a missing colleague and then a major drug- smuggling plot. In fairness to the locals the major criminals are imported, from England as well as from Dublin (almost as bad, in the opinion of the locals). Brendan is put on the case with an unlikely partner, a black American FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle), initial animosity gradually turning to mutual respect, but they are up against bent cops as well as the ruthless psychopaths (sorry, sociopaths) of the drug gang. Just to make things more difficult for B, his mother is dying. The denouement is satisfying but there is plenty of humour along the way to offset the tension.

Brendan Gleeson is just made for the part, a country cop whose rough manner belies a crafty brain honed by years of dealing with all the environment can throw at him. It is not surprising that he drops the occasional acid, is friendly with the local IRA operative, and consorts with call-girls (in mock police uniforms) on his day off. But he is not a crook, and like the Mounties, he gets his man. He also has a softer side, as we see in the scenes with his mother. He is helped by a very funny (if very profane) script. Some of it reminded me of "Pulp Fiction" where the crims while away car journeys by discussing literary and philosophical matters (eg was Bertrand Russell Welsh? Actually, he was born in Monmouthshire which is usually regarded as part of Wales, but his family were very upper class English).

The supporting cast has great fun with all of this. Initially Don Cheadle looks like a fish out of water, but by the end blends in nicely. Mark Strong as the chief baddie is hilarious – ("you just can't get good help today"). I loved the part where he hands over some hush money to the cops, telling them exactly what it's for. Liam Cunningham as one of the Irish crooks was also authentically nasty, and the gang's chief psychopath is nicely played by Liam Wilmot.

A lot of the action seems to take place at night or in fog, which is not a great advertisement for the scenery of Connemara – the various government bodies who put money into this film won't get much of a tourist dividend. There is something very Irish about the film nonetheless. "The Guard" is almost a mythical figure, a righter of wrongs from a long tradition of Irish heroes.
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Rom-com with a few surprises
1 October 2011
As the movie opens Cal Weaver's humdrum but comfortable life as an accountant in Beverly Hills is rudely shattered by his wife Emily (Julianne Moore announcing in a crowded restaurant that she's being having an affair with a workmate and wants a divorce after 25 years marriage. Cal (Steve Carell) moves out and drops in to the single bars scene where for reasons not entirely clear ("you remind me of someone") lounge room Lothario Jacob (Ryan Gosling) who beds a different gorgeous woman each night takes Cal in hand and trains him to be just as successful. Meanwhile Cal's 13 old son Robby (Johna Bobo) has fallen in love with the family's babysitter, High School student Jessica (Analeigh Tipton) who in turn has a crush on Cal. Then Jacob actually falls in love, with young lawyer Hanna (Emma Stone) and Emily starts to yearn for her discarded husband.

This all sounds like a conventional romantic comedy of the feel-good variety, but directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa and writer Dan Fogelman have a few surprises up their sleeves. The performances are first-rate and the dialogue crackling. There is some reliance on slapstick but also some real emotion conveyed. Ryan Gosling's Jacob might perhaps be too shallow to be true ("you look like you've been photoshopped" says Emily, on seeing his torso), but it turns out that even he has a credible backstory. As the principal lovers, Steve Carell and Julianne Moore exhibit a realism seldom seen in romantic comedy and there is some fine comic work from Maresa Tomei as one of Cal's lounge bar conquests who pops up a bit closer to home. At 120 minutes the film is slow in places – I would describe the direction as quirky rather than slick (how else can one explain the cinematographer's penchant for shoe-level shots) but more rewarding than the average rom-com, and although the ending is contrived it's still satisfying.

The directors, whose best known previous works, "Bad Santa" and "I Love You Phillip Morris" were decidedly quirky, have toned things down a bit here, but the characters are credible and sympathetic. I also liked the way the deep seated prudery and overdeveloped sense of decorum that afflicts middle class Americans are sent up. After an unseemly though perfectly understandable brawl in the Weaver's picture perfect back yard it falls to Vietnamese-American Officer Huang to tell the warring parties to do their fighting inside where the neighbours can't hear. I also liked Cal's line as he is rejected again by Emily outside Robbies' high school after a disastrous parent teacher interview and it starts to rain: "This is such a cliché". Well I suppose anyone going to see a rom-com ought to be prepared for clichés, but here they are cleverly handled, if a little sugar-coated.
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One Day (2011)
A growing older movie
14 September 2011
One Day Two eighties graduates in Edinburgh have an encounter on graduation day, July 15th ; the film follows their relationship by annual updates. Dexter (Jim Sturgess) brilliant, charismatic and a total narcissist and Emma (Ann Hathaway), a demure, warm sort are not a great match and both hitch up with others, but their friendship endures.

The film is romantic, but only to a point, and can hardly be described as a comedy; there is too much pain for that, despite some funny dialogue. It is a kind of growing older movie – early promise turning sour, bright young ambitious things tasting failure and settling for something less. The story is cleverly told and nicely shot, with good support from Ken Stott and Patricia Clarkson as Dexter's disapproving parents and Rhys Spall as Emma's husband. Jim Sturgess looks and acts uncannily like a younger Rupert Graves, who has portrayed a long line of charming handsome wastrels. Ann Hathaway might be from New York but she plays Emma perfectly – the dialect coaches really earned their money. Both of the principals manage to evoke our sympathy, though Sturgess has the harder job.

July 15 is St Swithin's day. On that day in 1415 the English Army led by Henry V (alias Laurence Olivier or Kenneth Branagh) defeated a larger French force at Agincourt. This has absolutely nothing to do with the movie though Dexter and Emma do at one stage venture to Brittany, where they manage to lose their clothes in one of the film's more comedic moments.

I couldn't help feeling the story arc was rather predictable but I was absorbed nonetheless. At the end I'm not sure what the attraction was for Emma – she was smart enough to realise Dexter was a jerk but somehow she couldn't resist. He does get better – perhaps deep down she wanted to reform him. Or perhaps deep down she wanted to be a bit wild too. A film for generation Xers who are wondering what the hell happened to their youthful dreams and plans.
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Red Dog (2011)
Feelgood dog story
28 August 2011
The interaction of animals and people is a source of endless fascination and this feel-good fable of a dogs's relationship with most of the residents of Dampier, a tough port town in the Pilbara region of north-west Australia, has a lot of charm. First there is the dog himself, a red kelpie with an amazing rapport with humans. Then there is some pitch-perfect acting from a good cast, fine cinematography making the most of the spectacular landscape, and a neat blend of comedy and drama – "Crocodile Dundee" with a dog as the hero.

The film has a most unlikely provenance, as it is based on a novelisation by the rather literary English author Louis de Bernieres ("Captain Corellis'Mandolin") who came across the story of the legendary red dog of the Pilbara on a trip to Karratha, near Dampier, for a literary event. (The locals have erected a statue of Red Dog on the outskirts of Dampier). The film-makers have sanitised the story somewhat – the real life "master" of Red Dog was not such a nice person as that played by Josh Lucas in the film, but they have effectively captured the atmosphere of a town where almost everyone was friends with a roaming Kelpie with a flatulence problem. It is the complete opposite of "Wake in Fright" with almost all the inhabitants of the hot and tough mining town being large-hearted, fair-minded blokes you'd be happy to have a beer with. Even Bill Hunter shows up in a very brief role as a survivor of a shark attack.

Although there was nothing wrong with the major players, John Batchelor was a stand-out as the mountainous Peeto. He was able to do tough-tender in perfect pitch. The dog, however, stole the show – the "Greyfriars Bobby" of the Pilbara.

The story does have some sad bits and I noticed some seven and eight year olds crying at the end, but this is such a good-hearted story I wouldn't keep it from them. It does show that doggy devotion can bring out the best in people.

The Pilbara was the setting for an earlier comedy-tragedy in "Japanese Story" in 2003, and this film exploits the magnificent land scape to the same extent. Essentially this film is a piece of folklore, with the exploits of Red Dog given mythic proportions. He almost certainly didn't get to Japan, for instance, but Perth and Darwin were probably on his itinerary. It's nice to know this film has done well at the box office – it doesn't patronise anyone, even cats.
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A solid adaptation of Oz classic
28 July 2011
Patrick White put Australia on the literary map by winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973, but his rich dense style did not make for a best-selling author. This film, an adaptation of White's novel, marks the first time anyone has succeeded in filming a White novel, though he wrote the screenplay for a curious piece directed by Jim Sharman, "The Night the Prowler" in 1977. Director Fred Schepisi said at the preview I attended that it was a challenge to film the allegedly unfilmable; if it had been easy it would have not been worth doing. Yet despite the style White was rather a theatrical author, and Judy Morris's screenplay accurately reflects White's mordant wit. His characters are acting their way through life and there is drama in almost every scene.

Old Mrs Elizabeth Hunter, widow of a wealthy grazier, is nearing the end of her days in some splendour in her Centennial Park, Sydney, mansion, and her two children have been summoned to her bedside. Her son Basil, once a leading actor on the London stage whose career is now in decline and her daughter Dorothy, the ex-wife of a minor French aristocrat, are motivated more by their possible inheritance than affection for the old lady. In fact Elizabeth inspires more affection in her nurses, solicitor and housekeeper than she does in her children. Dorothy in particular has cause to hate her mother, yet it is she who gets closer to her as the film progresses.

Schepisi manages to blend in the dark humour of the situation with the downbeat storyline. The cinemaphotograhy is gorgeous and the cutting, often without the usual establishment shots, wonderfully done, given the extensive use made of flashbacks – you instantly realise where the characters are. The book's interior monologues often appear as a single image in a single screen. The casting is such as Geoffrey Rush mentioned at the preview that he could not refuse – the very best of the Australian acting profession, though the pivotal role of Elizabeth Hunter is played with great panache by Charlotte Rampling. Rush plays Basil as a man who takes himself seriously, but can't persuade anyone else to. Judy Davis simmers as the disillusioned Dorothy , and John Gaden as Wyburd the family solicitor with a skeleton or to in his own cupboard is pitch perfect. Flora the day nurse, played by Schepsi's daughter Alexandra, is vividly realised, and there are good performances in minor roles also, including Helen Morse, unrecognisable, as Lotte the tragic housekeeper, and Colin Friels as a Labor politician on the make rather reminiscent of one Robert James Lee Hawke. The only odd casting decision is casting Melbourne locations as Sydney. Mrs Hunter's mansion is definitely not in Sydney and only a couple of brief scenes are shot in Centennial Park.

It has been opined that "The Eye of the Storm" is Patrick White in drag, and it is true that there are some obvious personal aspects to the story - there is a lot of White's mother in Mrs Hunter. Set as it is in the early 1970s in the declining old money grazier milieu, this film could be written off as a period piece. Yet Schepisi has managed to capture both the theme and atmosphere of the novel. The difficulties of dying have rarely been so well depicted on film. This may not be a box office smash, but it will appeal to anyone who likes a solid piece of film-making.
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A beautiful dog's breakfast
3 July 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Terrence Malick the eccentric genius of the cinema, a fit successor to Stanley Kubrick? Eccentric, sure, genius, I'm not so convinced.

On the positive side, every frame of this film is beautifully shot, the editing is wonderful and it is a visual feast. The theme, period and setting, growing up in the Texas town of Waco in the 1940s and fifties are all beautifully invoked. The acting is superb, especially the kids playing the O'Brien brothers, Jack, RL and Steve. And there's not much wrong with Brad Pitt's performance as their father. The mixed in creation sequences to which Kubrick's designer contributed are also spectacular. But why oh why bundle the two together? It's the Last Picture Show meets 2001. The reclusive Malick seems to think he has no need to explain himself but this film is said to be an autobiographical exercise. Malick's upbringing was not particularly horrendous on the evidence here. Like anyone with half a brain he is concerned with the ultimate questions about life – what are we here for, who is God, what does he want of us, what it's all about, and these questions arise in Texas as well as everywhere else. Putting all this into a movie about growing up though is just too big a call. The acting is great, but the actors are rather hobbled by the dialogue, or lack of it. It might as well be a silent film, for all it advances the story. We get more sense out of the narration. I don't quite know why the book of Job is quoted. Of course mankind was not present at the creation. Malick has a rather comprehensive background in philosophy and doubtless had a point to make, but I suspect its right over most viewers' heads. Abstract concepts are not easy to film and Malick at least has to be respected for trying, but there are too many loose ends and inexplicable incidents for a coherent argument.

What does work well are the portrayals of the relationships between father and son, older brother and younger brother and mother and son. There is very little insight into the parents' relationship, which rings true, since children seldom understand it, at least while growing up. I was a bit bothered by the closing sequence where a disullusioned adult Jack (Sean Penn) meets the rest of his family and his younger self (I think) on a beach in what seems to be a state of rapture. The universe can hardly be explained by reference to a religious myth and I find it hard to believe that someone with Malick's background in philosophy would give any credence to it. Perhaps it was a gesture to the religious right, but why bother – they are perfectly capable of producing fairy tales themselves.

I thought The Thin Red Line, based on James Jones' novel was a truly brilliant piece of work, especially since the novel had been filmed previously. Perhaps Malick is one of those directors who sees new possibilities in others 'work, rather than one who is an original creator. Compared to Thin Red Line, this film is gorgeous to look at, but a real dogs' breakfast otherwise. I was annoyed when I saw people walking out half way through, but at the end I had to acknowledge they had a point.
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Tale of corporate morality falls flat
17 April 2011
Corporate downsizing was recently rather adroitly presented in "Up in the Air" from the point of view of the bringer of bad news, suavely played by George Clooney. In this film television producer John Wells ("ER", "West Wing") looks at the issue more from the point of view of the victims. He does not concentrate on ordinary folk, but on three corporate high flyers abruptly parted from their affluent lifestyles. Chief among these is Bob Walker (Ben Affleck), thirty-something and regional sales manager for Boston-based transport equipment conglomerate GTX. Bob is living beyond his means anyway, and soon the big house and Porsche are gone and he and his family have moved in with his parents, his supportive wife Maggie (Catherine De Witt) going back to her old job as a nurse. Bob finds his new circumstances hard to take, but, ground down by the aftermath of his sacking and the fruitless search for a new job, he goes to work for his builder brother-in-law Jack (Kevin Costner).

Meanwhile his former superior Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) is also laid off, but getting a new job at 60 is virtually impossible and, lacking emotional support from his wife he turns to the bottle. The third sacked executive is Glen McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), a co-founder of the company and number two in the hierarchy, who happens to be having a discreet affair with the chief down-sizer, HR person Sally Wilcox (Maria Bellow).

This is a carefully crafted movie with some very competent acting and good lines but to me it fell rather flat. The story arc is predictable, and the villains are clichés. The three main characters are well drawn but it's hard to feel a lot of sympathy for them. Actually I did have some respect for Tommy Lee Jones' character, who did at least mourn the fate of a corporation which used to make things reduced to shuffling paper to keep up the share price. Ironically the paper shuffling makes him richer (he is a substantial stockholder in GTX). There are many other minor characters but most are paper thin. Craig T Nelson as the CEO does a nice study in unbridled greed and Kevin Costner is suitably blue collar as Jack the builder. Maria Bello's good looks interfered with her portrayal of the corporate Medusa – compare Tilda Swinton in a similar role (with Gorgeous George) in the far more dramatic "Michael Clayton. Tilda was beautiful, but also quite crackers, and both more dangerous and more believable.

I suppose if this were a TV movie I'd rate it as well above average, but the story is too trite to score well as a feature movie, the happy ending rather contrived and the excellent cast is under-utilized. Put it another way, I've seen better.
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The Way Back (I) (2010)
A beautiful but very long walk
1 March 2011
The story of a small group of people escaping from a Siberian Soviet prison, part of the "Gulag" in wartime and walking 4000 miles to freedom looked a trifle grim in the trailer, but Peter Weir has managed to produce a rather beautiful film out of it, using Bulgaria and Morocco as locales rather than Siberia and the Gobi desert. Only Darjeeling in India plays itself. My only trouble with it is the rather uneven character development. The story lends itself to ensemble playing but we learn little about two or three of the walkers. In the case of the lead character Janusz (Jim Sturgess) who is the source of the story this is explicable as we are seeing the others though his eyes, but it has to be said that both "Mr Smith" (the excellent Ed Harris) and the Girl (Saiorse Ronan) leave a lasting impression.

I know there is some doubt as to the authenticity of the story, taken from a 1955 book by Slavimir Rawicz a former Polish army officer, and indeed what the group are supposed to have done looks impossible but that's not a problem, because the relationships ring true. It is remarkable how an almost random collection of individuals, including one with a very unsavoury past, can, driven by sheer necessity, wind up functioning as a team. Partly this is due to the leader actually having some navigational knowledge and therefore inspiring confidence in the others. Mr Smith remarks early on that the Janusz has a serious weakness; he is kind, but when the chips are down we see that even the hard-bitten Mr Smith is capable of compassion.

Strangely enough, after the initial scenes in the prison camp, and the escape, there is not a lot of drama. The group encounter very few people on their travels and those they do meet take little interest in them (perhaps they had not heard about the bounty for escapees). Obtaining food and water is obviously a big issue, so mind out for the messy hunting scenes. I was astounded at how well their footwear stood up to the punishment; my hiking boots are not good for 400 miles let alone 4000. Actually they must have wandered around a bit - the northern end of Lake Baikal and Lhasa in Tibet are about 1800 miles apart, though the prison camp was somewhere north of the lake. It's also not clear how long the walk took, but at times it seemed like years. Weir's great achievement is to keep us watching a very drawn out tale. Personally I think I would have died of boredom if I had been in this particular walk, if starvation hadn't got me first.
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True Grit (2010)
A fine "late western"
19 February 2011
This must be the least "Coenish" of the 10 or so movies of Ethan and Joel Coen that I have seen. At first impression it is a straight-forward adaptation of Charles Portis's novel, including the use of much original dialogue which is distinguished by its lack of crude language. It is not a remake of the 1968 film for which John Wayne got an Oscar for best actor, though Jeff Bridges has been nominated as best actor for his take on the same character, Rooster Coburn. I thought he mumbled too much, but was otherwise very impressive.

Several things stand out. One is the sumptuous production values – the 19th century frontier is painstakingly re-created and the rugged landscape captured. Another is the authentic dialogue, even though one of the characters, the vengeance seeking 14 year old, Mattie Ross (a very convincing Hailee Steinfeld) is wildly improbable. The story itself, the hunt for the father's killer, is told without too much contrived drama, though there are some suspenseful moments and a certain amount of bloody action. The film is also beautifully paced. Some may find the opening scenes in Fort Smith drag a bit, but they are essential to the realisation of the characters. As the search gets under way there is enough action to keep us interested.

The wild west is long gone and westerns are no longer fashionable, though the Coens did a successful modern version of one in "No Country for Old Men". The rugged frontiersman, of which Rooster is a shining example, is no longer a heroic figure. They were brutal times - justice was rough and public hangings frequent – and Rooster was no better than he ought to be. Yet he is capable of heroism, unlike his opponents (leaving aside Indians, who do not feature in this story).

The relationship between Rooster and Mattie evolves from service provider - customer to something more like father – daughter. At least you feel she is the sort of daughter Rooster could be proud of. But in the end he is too emotionally stunted to persevere and he slips out of her orbit.

Anyway, this is a very fine "late western" and very entertaining. But it reminds us that myths fade, and what was admirable 50 years ago may be semi-barbaric today. "How the West Was Won" is a bit like Bismark's sausages. Its better not to watch them being made.
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Fever Pitch (1997)
fervour rather than fever
14 February 2011
Based on Nick Hornby's novel, this is a case study of soccer fanhood, or hopeless Arsenal supporteritis. The fan, played by Colin Firth in good-humour mode, is brought by his usually absent Dad (Neil Pearson) to a match as a twelve year old and is instantly hooked. He grows up (if that's the right phrase) to become an English teacher in a London comprehensive school and coach of the first XI soccer team, but he's still an ardent Arsenal fan, a team that hasn't (as of 1988) won a championship. He falls in love with a fellow teacher (Ruth Gemmell) but she finds life with a sports addict hard to take. Will he get the girl and his team (Arsenal) the championship? Stay tuned!

This is a nice fuzzy warm sort of movie which gives the viewer lots of quiet chuckles. There is a somewhat understanding headmaster (Ken Stott), pleasantly cheeky children, and lots of like-minded fans. There is certainly lots of solidarity. How sane adults can become sports addicts I find impossible to understand fully, but a large part of it seems to be the buzz you get from a sense of belonging to something bigger than you – a substitution for religion perhaps.
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The Wrestler (2008)
Wrestling with fate
14 February 2011
I saw this film only a few days after seeing Daniel Aronofsky's acclaimed ballet movie, "Black Swan", which may well propel the hard working Natalie Portman to a well-deserved Oscar. I thought it was a brilliant but rather cold and nasty piece of work. In this earlier film, notable for the resurrection of the wayward Mickey Rourke's career, the approach is much more sympathetic. In both films Aronofsky gets the audience inside the main character's mind – in fact we hardly go outside it. Mickey's Randy the clapped out wrestler is a familiar figure. and not difficult to understand. Pro wrestling as practiced in the US is entertainment rather than sport, but Randy's body can no longer put up with the physical abuse involved. Randy knows this, yet he cannot embrace retirement, or at least life in alternative employment, in his case behind a supermarket delicatessen counter. He also has personal issues, an estranged daughter and his relationship with a pole-dancer, the latter played by the always interesting Marisa Tomei.

Mickey puts in a faultless performance. His Randy exudes bravado but his aggression is well under control. In his quieter moments he shows gentleness and sensitivity. Unfortunately his propensity for hell-raising interferes with his personal relationships, though his ring performance is less affected. We know things are not going to end well but they do end neatly.

The world of pro wrestling is not seen in a glamorous light and the film is unlikely to boost trade. While we get a very clear picture of what might drive a competitor like Randy in this business, I was at the end of the day no clearer about what motivates the audience. Is this some survivor of a more atavistic age where people derive pleasure from seeing others bashing each other up? Boxing, in comparison, is much more structured and physically skilled. In pro wrestling we seem to be satisfying some pretty primitive desires. Randy the Ram knows what his audience wants and will just about kill himself to give it to them, but the audience won't really care if he dies on the job.

"Black Swan" packed a bigger emotional punch than "The Wrestler". Yet I felt for the wrestler but not for the ballerina. Aronofsky is one of those directors who can coax a stunning performance out of apparently ordinary actors, and there must be a long queue outside his casting agency.
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You can't buy love or art
14 February 2011
According to some historians, the couturier Coco Chanel and the modernist composer Igor Stravinsky had a brief affair in the early 1920s. Stravinsky was married with a family while Coco was unattached. According to the scriptwriters their paths had crossed before, in 1913, when the "The Rite of Spring" a ballet by Diaghilev with music by Stravinsky opened in Paris, causing such a commotion that the police were called. Coco was one of the audience who liked the piece. Seven or so years later she invited Stravinsky and his family to live in her elegant suburban villa. Stravinsky's wife Katerina was suffering from TB. It's not long before he and Coco are making passionate love and not long after that the rest of the household twigs to what is going on. The affair does not last long though it impels Stravinsky to the completion of one of his major works. To him, charming and successful as she is, Coco is not an artist, merely a shopkeeper, and he does not dissent when Katerina points out Coco buys people.

Coco went on to make a fortune out of perfume as well as clothes and Stravinsky became a major 20th century composer. She seems to have gotten over Stravinsky fairly quickly and indeed continued to support (anonymously) his work. Stravinsky on the other hand seems to have been shaken to the core. He did, after all, have something to lose, whereas Coco was a free agent.

This production is all that you would expect from a European director – it is all beautifully framed and shot – Coco's own designs are much in evidence – and the story proceeds at a stately pace. As Stravinsky, Mads Mikkelsen, best known as a Bond villain in Casino Royale, is every inch the uptight Russian composer, while Anna Mougladis is rather enigmatic as Coco. She likes the music and likes to support artists, but just why she takes a liking to Stravinsky is not evident, unless you accept Katerina's view that she likes to buy pretty people as well as things. Here the film makers have given us a film of beauty, but one which does not explain itself. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, we can all work out our own scenarios, but aesthetic considerations seldom amount to the full story.
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Black Swan (2010)
Gripping but nasty
3 February 2011
I'm afraid this movie falls within the brilliant but nasty class, or to put it another way it deals exclusively with the darker side of human nature. There is no light and shade, no humour, just a careering down the slope to inevitable disaster. We are very effectively put right into the mind of the principal character, a girl-woman who is an outstanding dancer but a very fragile human being in a tough environment. Her mother, a former dancer, has undoubtedly pushed her hard, but you can't put Nina's troubles down to Mum alone. There is Thomas the Svengali –like choreographer who is trying to arouse her dormant sexual feelings to get a better performance, and jealous other dancers. Plus, I suppose, the bitch-goddess success, more evident in New York than just about anywhere else.

Director Darren Aronofsky succeeds only too well in putting us inside Nina's mind. The loud soundtrack makes even the subway's clatter sinister and Tchaikovsky's music (played backwards apparently) menacing. The shaky hand-held camera adds to the claustrophobic malaise, though the grey concrete of backstage Lincoln Center (not the actual place) is pretty grim as well. A ballet movie for masochists, I thought. Even so, Natalie Portman puts in a brilliant performance. She is absolutely convincing, as are her delusions. It is certainly difficult to distinguish between what is actually happening and what is merely the product of Nina's addled imagination. I also liked Mila Kunis as the over-eager understudy/competitor and Barbara Hershey as Nina's controlling but anxious mother.

Classical Ballet is normally a refined form of theatre, and the production here follows the conventions – and then trashes them. There is too much suffering and not enough art, it seems. I don't know whether the original writer was trying to make a point about the suffering required to produce great art, but Aronofsky certainly makes Nina suffer. He also makes a mess of Tchaikovsky's work, which is conveniently out of copyright and unacknowledged except in the very small print. I don't think I'll be rushing to see his next film.
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No-one owns ideas
22 January 2011
This is an intriguing movie, still fresh in my mind despite having seen it some weeks ago. I was surprised at the "warts and all" portrayal of Facebook's putative founder Mark Zuckerberg, who, being now seriously rich, can afford the very best defamation lawyers. A good alternative title would have been "Citizen Zuckerberg" though he apparently still lives in a nondescript suburban house and drives an old car.

Several points stand out. First the film makers have rather ingeniously used as a framing device two separate court cases dealing with who really invented Facebook, the social networking site, which I am happy to say I do not belong to. Second, Jessie Eisenberg's performance as Zuckerberg is uncanny. It may or may not be true to life but it is absolutely convincing. His Zuckerberg is either afflicted with Asberger's syndrome or else is seriously weird, yet somehow we connect with him. Third, his opponents in one of the cases are the egregious Winklevoss twins, two of a vanishing breed – handsome rich WASP boofheads with an unshakable belief in their entitlement to privilege. They are also now seriously rich, though just a few days ago they lost an attempt in the Federal Court of Appeals to overturn their 2008 settlement with Zuckerberg. They are played by the same actor (Armie Hammer) who puts in two seamless performances. Fourth, Zuckerberg's treatment of his collaborator Eduardo Saverin, which leads to the other set of legal proceedings, is almost beyond belief. Fifth, all the litigation seems to be about a property right which does not exist, namely the ownership of ideas, though the lawyers try to dress it up by inventing contractual rights of doubtful provenance.

As a film, however, this one works very well. The supercharged and chilly atmosphere at Harvard College, where the super-bright slug it out with each other and the super-rich is superbly realized. You may have allies, but no real friends. This writer has some experience of the law school at Harvard and it all rings true. I'm not sure the origin of Facebook can be put down to Zuckerberg taking revenge on the girl who dumped him; Facebook was one of those things whose time had come, though no-one realized its full potential at the time. The Winklevosses, snobs that they were, saw it as a Harvard only site, while Zuckerberg thought the Ivy League colleges were about the total market, though of course he soon discovered the world was his oyster.
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Fair Game (I) (2010)
Redressing a small but nasty piece of political bastardry
9 January 2011
In retrospect, the George "Dubyah" Bush administration seems to have been more incompetent than evil, but this movie holds the Bushies to account for what was a completely malicious and unjustified act, the outing of the covert CIA operative Valerie Plame, which put numerous undercover operations and informants at risk, solely because her husband former Ambassador Joe Wilson IV had the temerity to dissent publicly from the White House line that the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had tried to buy uranium from Niger for bomb-making purposes. It is also evident that the CIA's soundly based advice that Saddam's bomb-making activities had ceased after the first Gulf War in 1991 was studiously ignored by the White House in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The actual leaker, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage got away scot-free, a crucial matter not discussed in the film , but "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Chaney's chief of staff carried the can and nearly spent 30 months inside for lying to investigators before being pardoned by the President. The film focuses on Libby and implies he was the leaker, acting with the knowledge of Karl Rove, the man who described Valerie Plame as "fair game", and Vice President Cheney.

Director Doug Liman is best known as a producer of thrillers ("Bourne Ultimation" etc) but here he and the Butterworths (Jez and John Henry) as scriptwriters have focused not only on the political intrigue but also the effect the Bushies' bastardry had on Joe and Valerie's personal lives. This gives some great acting possibilities to Sean Penn as Joe and our very own Naomi Watts as Valerie, and they both rise to the occasion, although Sean Penn might be a little self-righteous for some tastes. The personal impact aside, what the leakers did was a good deal worse than anything Julian Assange has done, and it is ironic that some of the conservative commentators who tried to discredit Joe and Valerie are now in the front line of those attacking the Wikileaks founder.

Regardless of the politics, this movie is entertaining enough to pass the watch test despite some dodgy hand-held photography. Near the end Valerie has a meeting with a very senior CIA officer glimpsed earlier, on a park bench in front of the White House. This man, played by Bruce McGill, bears a remarkable physical resemblance to the then director of the CIA, George Tenet. He warns her that she and Joe are up against the most powerful men in the world and asks her to stay silent for the sake of the agency. Valerie points out the agency won't even give her family any protection against death threats, to which Tenet, if that's who it's meant to be, merely shrugs his shoulders. What are the film makers trying to say here - that the agency doesn't look after its own?

Both Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame were patriots and, I believe, from Republican backgrounds. This did not bother the leakers who clearly couldn't care less who they hurt in the propaganda battle over the Iraqi invasion they were determined to launch. This film is based on two books by Joe and Valerie so I suppose it is a somewhat partisan account. Nevertheless it is hard to imagine a film treatment justifying what was done to them. George Bush in his memoirs mentions the Libby pardon issue but is otherwise silent on who did what. Never mind, his place in history as one of the lesser presidents is assured.
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A royal speech lesson
30 December 2010
Most historians seem to agree that since that minor German princeling George of Hanover was placed on the throne of the United Kingdom for no better reason that he was a protestant great-grandchild of James I, the throne has been occupied by, well, dullards. These have been of two sorts; the flamboyant as personified by George IV, Edward VII and Edward VIII, and the dutiful, such as Victoria, George V and the present incumbent. The subject of this film, her father Bertie, was definitely of the dutiful sort, but it was a duty he thought he was spared for until his air-head of an older brother fell for the charms of the twice divorced American social adventuress Wallis Simpson and renounced the throne to marry her. For poor Bertie has a serious stutter, and while the British Monarchy is expected to do nothing in particular it is expected to do it rather well.

The film tells how an uncredentialed but very experienced Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), helped Bertie, later George VI (Colin Firth), overcome his speech problem. Some liberty is taken with the facts to orchestrate a dramatic build-up to the fine speech Bertie gave as king on the outbreak of World War II in 1939 (by then Logue's therapy over 12 years had considerably improved things), but the scriptwriters, who had access to Logue's diaries, are able to re-create the singular relationship that developed between two men of contrasting backgrounds. Some of Logue's methodology is still a bit shadowy but whatever he got his patients to do, it mostly worked. Logue was convinced the root cause of stutters and stammers was psychological, and given that bullying was an integral part of a English "public" school upbringing it wasn't hard to see the causes. However he struck trouble with Bertie, who was not about to let Logue loose in his psychohistory. Eventually, Logue prevails, but we also have to hand it to Bertie as well. Old George V (Michael Gambon) was right about one thing, Bertie might not have been the sharpest knife in the palace kitchen but he was blessed with great perseverance.

Actually, it's hard to fault this film. The minor characters are a delight, but the two leads are terrific. Rush is utterly convincing as the slightly raffish ex-amateur actor turned therapist while Firth, always good as agonisied characters, excels himself as the battling Bertie. If anyone is going to get an academy award, it should be the two of them, jointly. Helena Bonham Carter as Bertie's bright and loving consort also merits a mention. Apparently the Queen Mother (as she later became) found the memories of Bertie's speech struggles too painful to revisit in her lifetime, but she would not have been too unhappy with the result here.

The British royal family has been the subject of some quite decent films in recent years, "The Queen" (about Elizabeth II and Diana's death) and "Mrs Brown" (about Queen Victoria and her Scottish gillie), and this would have to rank as one of the better ones, though as usual the film makers have been locked out of the actual royal locations.. Curing speech defects normally would not give rise to much drama, but in this particular case there is an undeniable connection with great events. It is impossible to say how much effect George VI's speeches had on the British war effort and many would say Churchill (played here with great panache by Timothy Spall, who has the great man's voice off perfectly) was more influential. But it's safe to say neither did much harm.
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Inception (2010)
A multi-layered action fantasy
22 September 2010
This movie is the product of Christopher Nolan's considerable imagination. Like "Memento", the story springs from an interesting speculation, in this case what if it were possible to get inside people's dreams, either to steal information or to plant suggestions as to future action. In the story, Leonardo's character does this for a living. He is retained by a large corporation to implant the idea into the heir to a rival corporate behemoth the notion that he should break up his father's empire and set up on his own – actually quite reasonable career advice (see Murdoch, Lauchlan). Nolan's trick is to film not only the dreams of the characters, but dreams within dreams and even dreams within dreams within dreams. The dreams turn out to be pretty action-packed, so that at times the whole thing seems in danger of becoming an application to direct the next James Bond movie. However despite about 90% of it being set in dreamland the story manages to emerge and there is a satisfying resolution.

There are shootouts, car chases, attacks on fortresses and vertigo-inducing scenes in lift shafts and special effects galore (the Paris folding street scape is a standout), but not much in the way of sex. There is romance of a kind in that Leonardo pines for his late wife, their life together being the subject of several flashbacks. For reasons which become apparent, Leonardo can't return to the US, but this job might change all that. Michael Caine, who seems to be popping up all over the place despite being 79 has a supporting role as his mentor. As far as I can tell he is the only significant character who doesn't appear in a dream.

I certainly hope that no-one tries tinkering with my dreams, but as they never seem to make much sense and don't as far as I can tell direct what I do day to day it might not be a profitable pastime. I suppose it might be different for someone who took them as auguries or guides to the future. The Generals of Myanmar would be a good bunch to start on.
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Farewell (2009)
Not much suspense but authentic atmosphere
15 July 2010
In this film the adage "truth is stranger than fiction" is well demonstrated. The real story of Vladimir Vetrov, the KBG Colonel who leaked vital details of the Soviet spy network to the West in the early 1980's is even more bizarre that the story related here, where Colonel Sergei Gregoriev (Emir Kursturica) uses a French electronics engineer Pierre Froment (Guillaume Canet), resident in Moscow, to pass secrets to the French domestic intelligence agency, the DST, and on to the CIA. Sergei ruled out using the DSGT, the French external intelligence service because he was aware it had been penetrated by the KGB. As it is the story here is a little lacking in tension despite the larger than life Sergei becoming more and more reckless as the story progresses .Some of the minor parts are pure vaudeville, Fred Ward's Ronald Reagan for example. However the two principals Kursturica and Canet, both prominent film directors, completely contrasting personalities, are very convincing. The 80's cold war atmosphere is well re-created – even the credits are vaguely menacing.

As in several recent spy stories "based on real events" the viewer is left with the impression that the West and Soviets had so thoroughly penetrated each other's security defences that they might as well have monthly meetings to hand over each other's secrets. This story does suggest that the Soviet Union was not able to keep up with Western technology, particularly in computing, and in resorting to stealing software the Soviets sowed the seeds of their downfall. In one instance the West was able to feed the Soviets with enough crook software to cripple their gas pipelines and cause a truly big explosion (without injuring a single person, apparently).

We do get considerable insight into what motivated Sergei, if not Vetrov (who seems to have been a less admirable character). Sergei is s true believer in communism, but he also fiercely loves his son, whom he wants to inherit something worthwhile. In a way the movie is as much about a parent sacrificing themselves for the sake of their child than the old spy versus spy routine. Froment is a less interesting character, but something inside him keeps him involved with the egregious Sergei despite his own misgivings and that of his wife Jessica (a refugee from East Germany with good reason to be afraid). Perhaps it's the opportunity for an otherwise unremarkable person to do something important. Or maybe he just finds it hard to say "non" to a person as charismatic as Sergei.

This film is not an "edge of your seat" suspense thriller but it tells an absorbing story, and is a useful reminder of the spy paranoia that prospered during the cold war.
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Caught up in their own villainy
10 July 2010
Australian TV viewers seem to have a big appetite for semi-fictional gangster stories Underbelly 1,2 & 3 for example, but this grim story lacks the contrived glamour of its TV counterparts. From the first voice-over it is clear this is going to be a cautionary tale ("they all get caught in the end"). "Loosely" based on the Walsh St, Melbourne, police murders case of 1988, the focus is on Josh (James Frecheville), a younger member of a family of career criminals specializing in armed robbery who as the movie opens has not yet turned to a life of crime. After his mother dies from a heroin overdose he his taken in by his grandmother Cody (Jackie Weaver) who presides over a household of bank robbers and drug dealers. Things hot up after corrupt police execute on of their associates in a shopping centre car park and the gang retaliates by killing at random a couple of patrolling police the next day.

Enter Guy Pearce (with silly moustache) in the unlikely role of an honest cop, anxious to prevent Josh going the way of his uncles Pope (a psychopathic Ben Mendelsohn), Craig (a drug-addled Sullivan Stapleton) and Darren (Luke Ford), a general purpose gangster who just does what he is told.

This is a finely told but in the end a rather depressing tale. Even so I enjoyed Jackie Weaver's tough evil old granny and Ben Mendelsohn's tough nasty criminal. For these people even family members are expendable – you can see why Josh's druggie mother was anxious to keep him away from the rest of the family. The corrupt police are too close to home to be amusing, I am afraid, but their banality is well displayed.

The dynamics of the Cody household reminded me of another grim but well-realised crime story of a family of killers "The Boys". Some characters would, given other circumstances would not behave so badly but for the presence of one or two really bad guys. Here, Mum loves then warts and all, a strange commentary on the noble ideal of unconditional love. The main performances are very solid but Ben Mendelsohn and Jackie Weaver are quite outstanding. The gloomy settings heighten the atmosphere of a group of people caught up by their villainy. Like the man said, a cautionary tale.
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Tolstoy's final drama
11 April 2010
The American director Michael Hoffman, in adapting Jay Prini's semi-factual novel about the last year in the life of the great 19th century Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, makes as his central character not the famous author but his wet behind the ears 23 year old secretary Valentin who is hired by Count Tolstoy's devout admirer Vladimir Chertkoff to both work for Tolstoy and spy on the countess, Sofya. She is not sympathetic to her aging husband's anarcho-Christian leanings, nor to the movement based on his philosophy, and fears the family will be deprived of the benefit of Tolstoy's copyrights.

Valentin, played fetchingly by James McAvoy, is a bewildered witness to the crisis in the stormy relationship between Tolstoy and his wife, which results in Tolstoy fleeing Sofya and his estate, only to die at a lonely railway station many miles away, with the world's media (such as it was in 1910) looking on. Unfortunately Valentin, based on a real person, is not only green but rather ineffectual and he is in the story as a witness rather than as an actor. One of the features of Tolstoyans was that they all seemed to have kept diaries and these provided Parini with most of his material. You can see why Hoffman made Valentin the central character, but his ineptitude is rather tiresome and his seduction by the lovely Tolstoyan Masha (Kerry Condon) (in contradiction to Tolstoyan-mandated chastity) is all a bit beside the point. It is the relationship between Leo (Lev) and Sofya that provides the real drama here, and the final scenes between them are genuinely moving.

Helen Mirren as the histrionic Sofya is alone worth the price of admission and Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy is convincing, though he demonstrates a lot more personal warmth than the real Tolstoy apparently did. Despite most of the filming being done in Germany the Russian atmosphere and countryside were well-evoked though I did wonder whether the serfs were real – none of them seemed to speak. There were also some inconsistencies in the screenplay – in one scene Valentin is at the Tolstoyan commune "two hours" from Tolstoy's estate at Yasnaya Polyana, yet in a later scene he rides between the two places seemingly in a few minutes.

Apart from the love story (and Tolstoy did maintain that love was all that really mattered), the other theme is the contrast between high ideals and the personal power play evident in the "movement". The Chertkoff character (slyly played by Paul Giamatti) is a Machiavellian schemer, unlike his real-life model, and even if Sofya had been more level-headed she had something to fear. But in the end the politics peter out and what remains is the rather sad end of a great literary figure feeding a media frenzy. Tolstoy was not actually Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi (with whom he corresponded) but he deserved a more dignified death – he valued peace, not war.
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