Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed: Innocence Regained

It should be hard not to like writer/director David Trueba's Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed (Vivir es fácil con los ojos cerrados). Antonio (Javier Cámara) sets off on a quest to meet John Lennon who is making a film in Almería, Spain. It's 1966 but this middle-aged teacher of English and Latin would be an unlikely Beatles fan except that he's a dreamer, but that's another song.

He picks up two hitchhikers, both lost souls like himself: young hairdresser Belén (Natalia de Molina) and sixteen-year-old Juanjo (Francesc Colomer). Speaking of souls, the film is set against the backdrop of Franco's fascist regime, with its all pervasive police and religious controls. We are reminded that Lennon had said that the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus".

The journeys of the three central characters typify the rebellious sixties that John symbolised for those looking for a better way, in particular in contesting the authority of church, state and family. Trueba is not preaching but his messages are clear, if gently delivered.

Cámara lives up to the quality you would expect from the lead in Pedro Almodóvar's Talk to Her. His young offsiders give equally controlled, understated performances. They are matched by Ramon Fontserè as Ramón, a bar owner and Rogelio Fernández as his son Bruno who has cerebral palsy.

Of course, the title comes from Lennon's lyrics for Strawberry Fields Forever. The adventures of this unusual triangle are about innocence lost and innocence won. It would be a great story even if it weren't based on Juan Carrion's actual experiences.

Definitely a film for baby boomers seeking to regain some of their lost innocence from the sixties. Various Gen X-Zs, who are given a yardstick to measure how far we've come, may also reflect on the courage needed to bring about change. Here endeth the review.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Rocket: Festival of Hope

Australian writer/director Kim Mordaunt's The Rocket is a little gem. He sees the film as "a rite of passage story of a boy’s journey through grief, guilt and self-doubt - set against the timely universal themes of the displacement of people by industry and the legacy of war". It certainly fits that description but in many ways it is a classic fantasy, a young boy and his family's quest to regain the life they have lost, symbolised by finding a place to plant the mother's mangoes.

It's a feel good movie with fun and humour. However, at its core is a very serious drama. It has been banned in Laos, where it is set, apparently because it deals with the dispossession of villagers from their land to build dams. The film was Australia's nomination in the Best Foreign-language category for the 2014 Oscars but didn't make it to the short list.

The two children go well beyond the cliché of stealing the show. Sitthiphon Disamoe as 10 year-old boy Ahlo romps through the film with boundless energy, displaying the rare ability to handle comic and dramatic moments with equal ease. Loungnam Kaosainam gives her 9 year-old character Kia a real edge. Her full-on attitude is as infectious as Sitthiphon's.

Former stuntperson Sumrit Warin as Ahlo's father Toma, gives a rock-solid performance that matches his chiselled countenance, saying lots with minimal dialogue. Bunsri Yindi as grandma Taitok and Alice Keohavong as the mother Mali have the kind of presence you'd expect of skilled, experienced professionals.

The other show stealer is the accomplished Thep Phongam as Purple, so named for his James Brown fixation. In Mordaunt's words, Purple is "a powerful metaphor for Lao’s history. He was full of contradictions: a deep Lao heritage but also a clone of western US influence from the Secret War when the Lao Hmong tribes people were recruited by the CIA to fight for them". He is also a great clown.

The film was produced by Sylvia Wilczynski, who is the other half of the Australian film company Red Lamp Films with Kim Mordaunt.

As befits the magnificent setting in the hills of Northern Laos, we saw the movie at the Shadow Electric outdoor cinema at the former Abbotsford convent in Melbourne. Without creating much of a spoiler, it was also appropriate that the bats made their customary dusk journey overhead before the screening.

The applause at the end indicated The Rocket's impact. Not because it could have happened, but because it should!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Philomena: Forgiven but not Forgotten

Stephen Frear's Philomena is a quality film, directed with admirable restraint and sensitivity. It's a familiar scenario. Jaded British journalist reluctantly takes on investigation on behalf of the powerless to set right past transgressions. In this case it's an Irish mother searching for her son 'stolen' in the 1950s.

It is tempting to find out how much of this film is 'based on a true story' but that's a bit like comparing the movie with the book. Nevertheless, it is quite legit to ask how much stored knowledge of the Catholic church's adoption policies and practices of the past, if any, the viewer needs to fully understand the issues raised or the personal anguish of the girls involved and their children. My exposure to many of the issues raised has been fairly extensive.

Steve Coogan is a pleasant surprise as journo Martin Sixsmith. He was also co-writer of the screenplay. Judi Dench is as professional as ever but that cheeky, knowing look she gives somehow doesn't match Philomena Lee's old-fashioned faith and lack of guile.

Wikipedia looks at accusations of anti-Catholicism. I thought the church got off lightly but let's not go into the 'churches abusing human rights' genre - it's very extensive.

There are a couple of bizarre twists towards the end that only a 'true story' can deliver without the necessity to suspend belief. It is based on Sixsmith's 'The Lost Child Of Philomena Lee' published in 2009.