The Children Act


Move over, Judge Judy – here comes Judge Emma Thompson.

(2017) Drama (A24Emma Thompson, Fionn Whitehead, Stanley Tucci, Jason Watkins, Ben Chaplin, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Rupert Vansittart, Rosie Cavaliero, Anthony Calf, Nicholas Jones, Andrew Havill, Angela Holmes, Micah Balfour, Chris Wilson, Anjana Vasan, Paul Jesson, Eileen Walsh, Hilel Patel, Daniel Eghan, Michele Austin, Paul Bigley, Deborah Rock. Directed by Richard Eyre

 

.The things that make a judge a wise and diligent arbiter are the same things that destroy a marriage. The cost of making the right call weighs heavily on the bench.

That’s the message in this 2017 adaptation of a 2014 Ian McEwan novel. Oscar winner Emma Thompson stars as Fiona Maye, a justice in the High Court presiding over cases involving children. Fresh off of giving a hospital the right to separate conjoined twins that will result in the death of one of them, she is given the task of a boy just shy of his 18th birthday who is refusing a blood transfusion that would save his life. He was brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness who believes that the blood is where the soul resides and that the mixing of blood is blasphemy. Even though refusing the treatment would kill him, the boy – Adam (Whitehead) – holds that his religious beliefs are more important.

At the same time, her academic husband Jack (Tucci) has become fed up with the lack of intimacy in their marriage and, frankly, the lack of presence by his wife. He wants to have an affair, even though he professes to still love his wife. Fiona is having none of it. Jack leaves.

Fiona throws herself into the case as a way of keeping the demons at bay. She elects to take the highly unusual step of meeting with Adam in his hospital bed and finds him to be charming and articulate. The two even end up singing a duet together of a folk song based on a Yeats poem. But Fiona has a difficult decision to make; does the boy’s religious beliefs supersede medical facts? The children’s act, which places the welfare of the child as the paramount factor in any judicial decision in England, holds the key.

Thompson has long been one of my favorite actresses and even though this is one of the least approachable characters she has ever played, Thompson still imbues Fiona with humanity and intelligence. Her relationship with her husband is less symptomatic of her personality than her relationship with her clerk Nigel (Watkins). His obsequious nature is at odds with her blunt personality, and yet his devotion to her is absolute.

At the center of the film is the relationship between Fiona and Adam and that’s where the movie slips a little. Whitehead makes Adam almost too good to be true; it is only after Adam begins to feel more strongly towards the judge that Fiona begins to shy away which leads to an ending that is frankly a little maudlin which is definitely at odds with the rest of the film. Eyre and screenwriter McEwan (who adapted his own novel) have the courage to take on some thorny issues and handle them with equal attention to both sides of the coin. That’s a rarity in films today.

Even though the movie slips into preposterous mode near the end, it is still a smart, well-written drama that utilizes the talents of its star rather nicely. You don’t have to be familiar with the intricacies of British law in order to enjoy this one.

REASONS TO SEE: Emma Thompson is a force of nature here. Tackles some real thorny issues equitably.
REASONS TO AVOID: Loses steam near the end. The Adam-Fiona relationship seemed a bit forced.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a single sexual reference and some adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Whitehead starred with Thompson’s ex-husband Kenneth Branagh in Dunkirk.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, GuideDoc, Hoopla, Kanopy, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/28/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews, Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Most John Grisham adaptations.
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween

The Leisure Seeker


On the road, American-style.

(2018) Dramedy (Sony ClassicsHelen Mirren, Donald Sutherland, Christian McKay, Janel Moloney, Dana Ivey, Dick Gregory, Leander Suleiman, Ahmed Lucan, Gabriela Cila, David Marshall Silverman, Lucy Catherine Haskill, Joshua Hoover, Kirsty Mitchell, Mylie Stone, Helen Abell, Joshua Mikel, Robert Walker Branchaud, Denita Isler, Chelle Ramos, Danielle Deadwyler. Directed by Paolo Virzi

 

Growing old is hell. I’m finding that out first hand, and I’m not even 60 yet. The older we get, the more we have to lose, including our independence. There’s something about that which is almost unthinkable, but it often happens to our parents long before it happens to us.

John (Sutherland) and Ella Spencer (Mirren) are an aged couple in the twilight of their years. John is a retired literature professor; Ella is a wife and mother but also a very smart and tough cookie. One day, she and John set out in their old Winnebago for one last adventure.

The trouble is though that John is suffering from dementia and his lucid moments are getting further and farther between. Ella is also having some serious health problems and the strain of being John’s caregiver is wearing on her to the point where she isn’t sure she can continue. Their children Will (McKay) and Jane (Moloney) are frantic with worry – their parents left without telling them their plans, which are to drive down from New England to Key West to visit Ernest Hemingway’s house – Hemingway is a hero to John, and one of the things he can remember more clearly more often – one last time.

There is definitely an elegiac feel to the movie, even though there is a sense of humor to it. John’s antics aren’t necessarily played for laughs; he soils himself and some of his memory lapses are downright dangerous. Still, Ella faces a good deal of her husband’s illness with a cheerful sense of humor, even if she is at the end of her rope. The love between the two of them is heartwarming.

Part of the reason it is so is because Sutherland and Mirren are both excellent actors and the chemistry between them is genuine. Virzi gives them a real sense of being on a road trip, which helps the actors express being comfortable together. The Winnebago isn’t in the best of shape but with a bit of tender loving care, it will get them where they’re going, which is pretty much true for life.

The problem here is mainly that the plot is pretty predictable and there aren’t a lot of surprises, although feisty Ella faces down a pair of would-be robbers with a shotgun but that is one of the few moments where I thought that the movie was playing down to the elderly – oh, look, isn’t she cute, she’s got a gun. For the most part, these are real people with real issues that face millions of our elderly day in and day out. That’s one of the main takeaways I had from the movie and I thought both Sutherland and Mirren gave their characters dignity, from the first frame to the last.

Although there are some fairly funny moments and some fairly sweet ones, this isn’t something you should look to for some light entertainment. The issues being portrayed here are very real and they may remind you of someone in your own life going through similar challenges – parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers. It may hit a little too close to home. I’m very fortunate that my mom (my father passed away more than thirty years ago) still has full possession of her faculties, even though her memory isn’t what it once was and she walks a lot slower than she used to, but she is the first to squawk when she feels pandered to. I don’t think this movie would give her reason to squawk.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong performances from Mirren and Sutherland. Kind of a nice travelogue.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit on the predictable side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first English language movie for Virzi.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Sling TV, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews: Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:  Folks!
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
First Man

Good


Good

Viggo Mortensen has to keep telling himself he's not in Mordor anymore...it's worse!

(2008) Drama (THINKfilm) Viggo Mortensen, Jason Isaacs, Jodie Whittaker, Mark Strong, Steven Mackintosh, Gemma Jones, Anastasia Hille, Ruth Gemmell, Ralph Riach, Steven Elder, Kevin Doyle, David de Keyser, Guy Henry, Adrian Schiller, Tallulah Boote Bond. Directed by Vicente Amorim

 

We like to think we know the difference between right and wrong and given the choice between the two, will choose the former. That is the definition of a good person, isn’t it? Someone who always chooses the right thing over the wrong thing? Sometimes, the definitions aren’t so clear-cut.

John Halder (Mortensen) is a literature professor in Berlin in the late 1930s as the Nazi party is rising to power. He has written a book in which euthanasia was a theme and the higher-ups in the Party have taken it as a means of excusing the Final Solution, not that John knows any of this. What he dos know is that joining the Party – whose politics he objects to and disagrees with – can mean comfort and safety for his family. So he joins.

His best friend, Maurice Gluckstein (Isaacs) who happens to be Jewish, sees the inherent evil in Nazism that his friend John (shouldn’t it be Johann if this is in Germany?) obviously has turned a blind eye to. And John isn’t a bad man, he’s just doing right by his family?

But when you take one step down the rotten path, sometimes it becomes easier to take other steps. He leaves his neurotic brunette wife (Hille) for a blonde, Aryan student (Whittaker) who the party approves of. She is much more in tune with Party politics than his wife, who like her parents and his, see the transformation Germany is undergoing with horror. It isn’t until it is much too late that John realizes the evil he has bought into and for that kind of mistake the price is very high indeed.

This is based on a 1982 play by John Wrathall which I understand was staged in a very stream-of-consciousness, minimalist way. The storytelling is a little more conventional here (with a subplot about John’s abominable treatment of his mother (Jones) thrown in for good measure) but there are still holes in it. Part of what should make this an excellent subject for a movie is that there really isn’t much exploration as to why John turned such a blind eye to what his country was becoming. It seemed to be out of almost convenience – it was simply easier to go with the flow. It seems to be an over-simplified explanation from what I know of Germany from that era.

Also, the characters (other than Gluckstein, who is portrayed with marvelous zest by Isaacs) are mostly bland and somewhat  without much personality. John is supposed to be a brilliant man who is motivated out of expedience to care for his family, but what we get is a man who doesn’t much care about what is going on around him – neither do we, then.

To be honest, I’m probably a little bit harsher on the film than I might ordinarily be. If I am, it’s because the potential here is so wasted – this is a wonderful and important idea for a movie. It’s just not executed very well. There are parallels to what went on in Nazi Germany to how America responded after 9-11, so this is certainly something worth exploring, especially now. I just wish they’d explored it a little more thoroughly.

WHY RENT THIS: A very interesting discussion about good and evil and how sometimes the line between the two can be very thin.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Underdeveloped characterization and some shoddy plot development.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of bad language and some adult themes which smaller children might not yet be prepared for.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Romola Garai was originally cast as Anne but withdrew in order to concentrate on her university studies. Jodie Whittaker took the part instead.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Rather than having a commentary track, there is an interview segment that is nearly an hour long and includes many of the film’s cast and crew.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.6M on an unreported production budget; at best I think the movie broke even.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: For the Love of the Game

Disgrace


Disgrace

An awkward silence ensues after John Malkovich asks Jessica Haines for a loan.

(2008) Drama (Paladin) John Malkovich, Jessica Haines, Eriq Ebouaney, Paula Arundelli, Fiona Press, Antoinette Engel, David Dennis, Michael Richard, Natalie Becker, Charles Tertiens. Directed by Steve Jacobs

The consequences of our actions are utterly and completely our own – at least, most of the time. When we perform actions that beget disastrous consequences, then we fall into disgrace.

David Lurie (Malkovich) is a professor of Romantic literature at a university in Capetown, South Africa. He is an arrogant man who teaches poetry without really understanding it. Middle aged, he is divorced and estranged from his family, and spends much of his time taking up with black prostitutes. When he engages in an affair with a mixed race student (Engel) of his, he is found out and brought before a disciplinary board.

However, he refuses to defend himself for, by his lights, following his natural instincts. Given no other option, the board dismisses Lurie, which surprises and shocks him – he fully expected to escape sanction of any kind. His career ruined, he finds sanctuary on his daughter’s farm.

Lucy (Haines) is a lesbian who grows organic crops and takes care of dogs in a rugged part of the country. She is assisted by Petrus (Ebouaney), who does most of the heavy lifting and whom David develops an immediate distrust for. He tells Lucy he doesn’t think she’s safe on the farm with Petrus around.

In the meantime, he helps out the local vet with performing euthanasia on dogs. It’s the only job he can really get. He is actually beginning to put his life back together – until something horrible happens, something that will test his limits as much as anything else in his life to that point had.

Aussie filmmaker Jacobs has taken an award-winning novel from South African writer J.M. Coetzee and turned it into a stark, unyielding look at hubris. The landscapes here are soulless and colorless, from the muted colors of the university to the desolation of the countryside of the Eastern Cape.

Lurie is much like that, only reversed – his desolation is on the inside. Outwardly, he can quote the flowery poetry of Byron, whom he most identifies with – but inwardly he doesn’t understand it, is incapable of it. Or, if he is capable, chooses not to because of his own hubris.

Malkovich does a stellar job as Lurie. While his Afrikaner accent has a tendency to slip now and again, he captures the essence of Lurie in his granite façade, his opinionated stare. This is not a very nice man, and bad things happen to him, much of which is of his own device. Haines does a pretty good job in support of Malkovich. She manages to stand up beside him without being overpowered by him. That’s no easy task, as many actors can attest.

Although I’m not familiar with the source material, I understand that Coetzee’s original work was taken as a political allegory about the status of the white male in the changing South African society. I don’t get that as much from the movie, which seems to be more of a morality play about hubris and pride. There are allusions to Biblical wrath of God type of stuff happening to David Lurie, although unlike Job he brought many of his troubles on himself and in doing so, brought them upon others.

There is a lot going on in this movie and nearly all of it is under the surface. That does make for a pretty solid workout in the mental gym, which is not what the general moviegoing public is necessarily after. Unfortunately, I’m not exactly sure if I caught the nuances I needed to; they may have been more subtle than I’m used to, or else I just missed them entirely. In any case, this is a very solid movie that is going to provoke some thought and maybe even a little debate. What’s it all about? Probably not what I think it is; but I’m probably not wrong either.

WHY RENT THIS: A powerful performance by Malkovich is framed by a stark cinematic shell. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The violence is sudden and ferocious and might put off some.

FAMILY VALUES: The film went unrated, but there were some scenes of sudden and terrifying violence, including a rape. There is also some very adult themes as well as some very adult language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Steve Jacobs is married to Anna Maria Monticelli, who adapted the J.M. Coetzee novel into a screenplay.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.1M on an unreported production budget; my guess is that the movie just about broke even.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: The Bang Bang Club