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Recent Movies: The Lobster; The Lady in the Van; Where to Invade Next; Old Movies: Panique; The Manchurian Candidate

April 24, 2016

Recent Movies

The Lobster

In a dystopian society (likely in Ireland or England though the location is unnamed), two groups of radical control freaks battle against each other. One is a law-enforcing hotel compound in a rural area. Its purpose is to convert single people into couplehood. Singles who fail to couple within forty-five days face serious consequences. The other group is loners who have escaped the compound and live with their own rules in a nearby forest. David (Colin Farrell) sees the worst of both worlds.

The first half is clever at times despite some moments of cruelty and sadism. As bizarre as the anti-single compound is, it seems to make sense within its own set of rules and ideals. Its concept is likely a stab against one of the unspoken prejudices: the belief that singlehood is an unfortunate and horrible situation that must be corrected and removed as quickly as possible. The oddball group of characters make a fascinating show that sometimes has scary moments. There is also a clever contradiction as the “guests” are treated with verbal courtesy even as they are being controlled.

The movie goes downhill in the second half once the main action moves into the forest. It’s not just overly long (it is); it misses the opportunity to show the misfits living differently from the tyranny they left behind. It’s just more of the same controlling mean-spiritedness. By this time one has already had enough and wants less rather than more of what took place before.

Even a plot twist fails. There could have been tension and suspense. Instead, it was done so quickly, one wonders why it didn’t happen sooner.

The characters are deliberately bland and almost robotic thus making it difficult to identify with anyone. When David makes a ridiculous and stupid decision by the end, the feeling of disappointment is further fueled.

RATING (out of four stars):   * *

The Lady in the Van

Based on a true story,  Mary Shepherd (Maggie Smith) is the title character: an elderly, homeless, delusional grouch who ends up parking her van in the driveway of writer Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings). Bennett wrote the movie as well as the play on which the film is based.

Smith is a delight in this film as she is in everything she does. She is quite funny as someone who is almost always unpleasant. The rare times we feel sympathy for Mary is when we get glimpses into her past. Even if we dislike her, she is always interesting and we want to learn more about her.

The same is not so much for Alan – a terrible irony as he is the writer of the story. Jennings does play him well and the character is self-effacing with his constant internal world. But we don’t get to know him well until the end. He also seems to be one of those main characters who is “too nice” in bad sitcom plots: one who sets himself up for exploitation and is unwilling to stop the pattern.

Much like some of her other recent films like “Quartet” and “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”, Smith raises the movie to a higher level. Let’s hope this brilliant octogenarian can keep working for as long as possible.

RATING:   * * 1/2

Where to Invade Next

U.S. Documentarian Michael Moore travels to nine different countries (eight of them in Europe) in order to “invade” them i.e. to “steal” the best of their social policies and bring them back to the U.S. The ironic conclusion is sad as well as fascinating.

Throughout this travelogue, the viewer learns of superior national policies and lifestyles:  worker benefits (Italy and Germany), gourmet-like school lunches and open sex education (France), education systems with no homework and concentration on each child’s full well-being (Finland), free university tuition even for foreign students (Slovenia), the benefits of fully acknowledging a nation’s horrific past (Germany), how the legalization of drugs was followed by reduced drug use (Portugal), prison systems where the prisoners are treated with humanity and trust (Norway), a religious Muslim country that fully supports women’s rights including full access to abortion (Tunisia), and how women’s participation in banking and political life improves the lot for all (Iceland).

This is Moore’s best film since “Bowling for Columbine” (2002). Since “Farenheit 911”, he started to go over-the-top and become didactic. In this current film, the preaching is behind and what we see is more of his intelligence, humour, and great skills at unveiling the facts. He has a deep concern for his country and it shows.

Some moments are memorable: juxtaposing sound bites of past U.S. presidents condemning other countries’ “barbarisms” with visual footage of great domestic troubles in the U.S.; one of three Italian CEO siblings failing to understand why someone would want to be richer by giving their workers less money and benefits (she couldn’t give up the good relations she had with her staff); the looks of the faces of an Italian couple when they hear that American workers have no guaranteed vacation compared to their minimum of six weeks; a Portuguese drug expert casually comparing drug addiction to other addictions: alcohol, sugar, caffeine, and…….Facebook; an articulate Tunisian woman showing her genuine surprise as to why so many people would watch “The Kardashians”; and mostly the interview with a Norwegian man who lost his son to the mass murders of 2011.  He did not show the desire for vengeance as one might expect.

This movie is not without flaws. It’s a bit too long at two hours. It also seems to whitewash any of the problems faced by the nine nations. Its claim at the end that we need more women in power is noble to a degree and logical in certain contexts but maybe this principle works better in a socialist society like Iceland than it would in other countries. In the U.S. (as well as my country of Canada), high-ranking female politicians are just as prone to greed and corruption as their male counterparts. This may be so in other countries as well. There is also no mention of the long history of European countries’ prejudice against the Roma minority.

In the end, this is still a fine documentary and it’s great to see Moore back in his best form again.

RATING:   * * * 1/2



Great Old Movies Seen for the First Time

Panique  (1947 – France)

In a tight-knit Parisian neighbourhood, a murder has taken place. Gossip leads to the belief that the murderer is Monsieur Hire (Michel Simon), an unsociable outsider.

As murder mysteries go, this one is unique and fascinating. The murderer is revealed early in the film. What takes place from then on is even more intriguing than most other murder stories.

Most fascinating is the portrayal of Hire – both as played by Simon and as written by Julien Duvivier (the film’s director) and Charles Spaak. One can easily see why he is unlikeable in various scenes; yet, he is admirable for acting confidently and morally when he is unfairly treated with contempt by those who have much less character than he has. While anti-Semitism does not seem to be behind the mistrust of Hire, he is further isolated as he is the only Jew in the neighbourhood. The viewer also learns of Hire’s isolation beginning in childhood even within his own family.

These opposite feelings toward this character are part of the richness of this story. While we feel great sympathy for him by the conclusion, a shocking revelation at the end leaves the viewer with other feelings: it seems that in Hire’s extreme isolation from community standards, his actions and inactions contributed to his own problems.

There is also a theme about loners that goes beyond Hire. Two other characters seem to possess this trait. One is a clever detective who is very observant and is not in the least swayed by mob mentality. The other is the murder victim herself as the tributes to her mention that she more or less kept to herself.

As a director, Duvivier has done a superb job in keeping the suspense alive leading to a shocking crowd scene at the end that has culminated as the result of a vile mob mindset looking for a scapegoat.  While there is so much to praise about “Panique”, its greatest asset is how much it leaves one thinking after its completion.

RATING: * * * *


Directing by Julien Duvivier
Screenplay by Julien Duvivier and Charles Spaak (based on the novel “Les Fiançailles de M. Hire” by Georges Simenon
Acting by Michel Simon

Great Old Movies Seen Again

The Manchurian Candidate  (1962 – USA)

A platoon of U.S. soldiers is kidnapped and brainwashed during the Korean War. One of them, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), is trained to be an assassin once he returns to the U.S. Another (Frank Sinatra) tries to unravel the mystery of what happened during the war due to his nightmares.

The screenplay by George Axelrod (based on the book by Richard Condon) seems busy at first but it concludes perfectly in three successive scenes at the end – all of them perfectly executed and edge-of-your-seat thrilling.

The first is between Harvey and Sinatra. It is a perfect wrap-up of all that happened during their war imprisonment.

The second is between Harvey and Angela Lansbury who portrays his mother, an anti-Communist viper whose extreme ambitions are forced onto her husband (Raymond’s stepfather), a dupe of a U.S. Senator. (Back in those days, politically ambitious women – both good and not so good – could not have their own careers so they had to manipulate and groom a man in their place.) As Lansbury uncovers more truth in this scene, she is chilling – not just for the information she reveals but the shocking way she delivers it.

The final grand conclusion takes place at a presidential nomination convention at Madison Square Garden . The brilliant use of a crowd scene adds further thrill to an event that is even more shocking than the scenes that precede this one. Despite knowing the conclusion, my heart was pounding before the grand event. This scene alone shows the true mettle of director John Frankenheimer who has done a great job overall. (Another great scene is the brainwashing scene at the beginning.)

Among the performances, Sinatra is great as the hero while Harvey is peerless as someone whose mind doesn’t fully belong to him. Yet even in this great company, Lansbury stands out.

RATING: * * * *


Directing by John Frankenheimer

Acting (in a supporting role) by Angela Lansbury



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