Second film of the day and very different. This is an American film about the life of Sam Childers, a reformed drug addict and violent criminal, who finds God and hears the call to go to Sudan and help the people rebuild their country. While there he sees the horrors of the war and specifically the terrible toll visited on the children of that country. He is inspired to build an orphanage and works to protect and save as many children as he can. The film stars Gerard Butler of “300” fame and this combined with the title of the movie suggests on first glance if this film will not be a bit of a sensationalist rip-off of the tragic events in Africa. Fortunately it is not just the Spartans against the terrorists but a human story that has some real depth. The story is real and while Sam Childers currently in real life and in the film has no hesitation to use his expertise with guns and his willingness to do violence in order to protect the children under his care, he also has a charitable and Christian commitment that lies behind his actions. At the end of the film while the credits are run there is some real life film of the real Sam Childers. The resemblance to Gerard Butler’s portrayal is remarkable. I think the film is really pretty good, exciting, insightful and a shocking presentation of the incredible violence perpetrated against children in that part of the world.
If you followed my reviews last year you will know that I took it out on French films. I generally am not fan and have never been but this year may turn me around. I have already reviewed several very good French films including Le Havre, Rebellion and The Cardboard Village but the best by far was The First Man based on the final and unfinished novel of Albert Camus. Now you need to take into account that I have a doctorate in philosophy and that my focus was 20th century continental philosophy (you know… all those existentialists: like Sartre and Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty) but of course like many who did Arts and Science in the 60’s it was Albert Camus that we all read and loved. Camus’s great novel L’Etranger, was the ultimate nihilistic, anti-establishment, atheistic existentialist bible but, it was also his first novel and as he aged he matured and humanized and his latter novels like The Fall and this final one reveal a depth and intelligence about the human condition not equalled by many. This film is a wonderful recreation of the story. It tells the story of a man returning to Algeria, the home of his birth to learn more about his origins. Camus was born in Algeria himself at a time when North Africa and Algeria in particular were French colonies. So this is somewhat autobiographical. The protagonist in the novel and the film lost his father in World War I and in fact never knew him. The film uses flash backs to tell the story and moves between the past and present gently and intelligently. The acting is excellent and the insight into the colonial mind and situation is provided with sensitivity but does not pull its punches. I really loved this movie although it may not get the attention or distribution it deserves. A lovely film from the work of a great writer and philosopher.
Last film of the day and potentially the best was Habemus Papem (We have a Pope). We were lucky to have the director Nanni Moretti present who also acted in the film. Moretti is known for his comic and satiric take on Italian society and institutions and this time took on the Catholic Church and the Papacy. There was apparently much anxiety in Italy when it was revealed what his project was but the outcome was not as bad as many feared. This is a comic and satiric film but is not vitriolic or anti-catholic per se. Instead it is the fictional story of the selection of a new Pope who is reluctant to take his role. This is revealed to all just as the newly elected Pope is himself about to be revealed to the world. With a scream he retreats from the balcony and goes into hiding. All is put on hold as the Cardinals and the papal bureaucracy work to convince the new Pope to accept his place. Talk about a constitutional crisis! What to do when God’s elected bishop refuses to take the job on. There is no precedent and no way to go back. What follows is a very witty and whimsical trip including the hiring of Italy’s top psychoanalyst (played by Moretti himself) to treat the new Pope. One of the funniest scenes of the movie is the first session of the psychoanalytic intervention in which the psychiatrist and his patient begin to delve into his childhood issues and relationship with his mother with the entire College of Cardinals watching in a circle around them. Sadly the film ends with a whimper. Very disappointing and it spoiled the whole movie for me. Not sure I can recommend this to you but Moretti is not without talent and maybe if you just turn it off at the climax you will leave with a good impression.
This one was introduced and hosted by Piers Handling who clearly worships the director but who also clearly had no idea what the film was about. I don’t want to say bad things about Handling (well… sometimes I do). He is clearly good at running a festival at least in terms of attracting good films but he himself is not the best at understanding the films he has selected. Sadly he was a bit of an embarrassment in the Q and A until he silenced himself after being put down by the director and let the audience ask some questions.
Second movie of the day was Trespass, a home invasion thriller starring Nick Cage and Nicole Kidman. I was attracted to this by the fact that it was a Joel Schumacher although I could as easily said Nick Cage or Nicole Kidman. All of them are really good when they are good but can be really bad too. Sadly this film leans toward the latter category. The script was totally bizarre with twist after twist until it became completely absurd. A home invasion film has the potential to be totally thrilling and chilling but this one was eventually just silly. It’s been awhile since I saw it last but the home invasion film that really made the grade and has yet to be equalled is Wait Until Dark. I still remember people clinging to the ceiling of the theatre the first time they saw Alan Arkin’s key scene. I won’t tell you what it is if you haven’t seen it. Just don’t waste your time on Trespass and go get a copy of Wait Until Dark and sweat it out with Audrey Hepburn.
Hands up all those who know and live Michael Lonsdale. Who some of you may ask? I think he is one of the more underrated actors with a long and distinguished career going back to the 60’s. He starred in Is Paris Burning and The Bride Wore Black in the early 60’s but his breakout movie was The Day of the Jackal in 1973 in which he played the French inspector who tracks down and kills Edward Fox as the assassin. Last year he starred in Of Gods and Men a wonderful French film about a small group of monks in an Algerian village and this year he is an elderly priest in another French film about illegal immigrants. He is a French actor of English descent and is fluent in both French and English making him a very versatile resource. A brilliant character actor who deserves recognition from The Academy but sadly will likely never get it. This small movie is about a priest whose church has been deconsecrated leaving him with no congregation or purpose. He fears he is losing his faith and with it all the meaning in his life which has until then been dedicated to the poor community he has served. Shortly after the church is shuttered and locked it is invaded by a small group of illegal African immigrants who are being hunted by the police. The old priest gives them sanctuary and hides them despite the fact that they may also harbour terrorists. An interesting theme this year is the number of European films dealing with illegal immigration and the moral challenge it poses for countries like Italy and France specifically. From Le Havre, which takes a light but still humane angle on the theme, to this more serious film, the moral and personal implications of this increasingly difficult challenge are explored intelligently. This issue will continue to grow in the coming years due to climate change and what is really the beginning of an enormous human migration. We can expect to see more on this topic in documentaries and dramas in the years to come. We must all pay attention and not trivialize this issue. The film makes a powerful statement about this.
After light and airy I hit serious and intense. Rebellion is a fictionalized account of real events about a French commando team charged with negotiating the release of hostages in an uprising in the jungles of the French colony of New Caledonia in 1988. It is election time in France and the politics have an impact on everything the lead negotiator tries to do. It is a fast-paced, action-filled but thoughtful film about the reality of war and revolution. Ten years in the making because of the still very sensitive nature of the situation and politicians who are mostly all alive and active, it took great courage to do but manages to present the story as accurately and unromantically as possible. Mathieu Kassovitz is the director, writer and lead actor in what is truly a tour de force of film making. He was there for the Q and A and we learned a great deal about the struggle to create the movie. They got absolutely no help from the French armed forces who did not want the story told. The man about whom the film is made did help since he had left the army largely over the outcome of this event. It is a hard story of trust and betrayal and while the hero of the film did his job and followed orders, his conscience would not let him continue. One of the things that totally surprized me was that throughout the film helicopters are used to transport men and supplies but in fact they had no access to any helicopters. The used wooden and cardboard models and CGI to do the scenes. You cannot tell at all which is what makes this one of the most remarkable aspects of the movie. Rather than using CGI to create dinosaurs and robots and other fantastical effects, this film used the technology to a truly artistic end. Fantastic. This is French film with subtitles and while I have dismissed French cinema in the past – I highly recommend this movie.
Watch for the Sambola – a new dance craze to seize the nation!! Well maybe not. It is one of the very funny scenes in this whimsical film about four young women attending Seven Oaks College – a small liberal arts college clearly based in the northeastern US. The new film from Whit Stillman, who last made a movie 13 years ago (Last Days of Disco), is a small cinematic gem. With a very unusual script and totally offbeat plot line it follows the four protagonists through a school term led by Greta Gerwig as Violet the alpha girl. The four work through how to dress, who to date, why dumb guys are best (also known as doufi) and the ups and downs of relationships. Some very funny sequences including a guy named Thor who has never learned his colours (you have to see this to believe it) and some great dance scenes. The movie ends with homage to Fred Astaire and the introduction to the Sambola dance craze, a mix of the Charleston, Tango, Waltz and Tap. Just classic. This is definitely not The Dead Poet’s Society for girls but a light and intelligent movie to savour over popcorn sometime this winter.