Just a few of these for tonight... an especially tight schedule the last two days, some lingering illness, and school commitments threw me a bit behind.
Made in Dagenham (Nigel Cole)
Probably the sweetest movie ever made about a May ’68 rebellion, this is plays like a thoroughly tamed Norma Rae. The setting is in the titular town, at a Ford Motors plant, where a group of women choose to go on strike for equal pay. The film is sure to be the target of scorn, some of it rightful, but I found it so light on its feet and enjoyable that I could forgive its utter manipulation (e.g. every man is an ineffectual pig, with the exception of the one played by Bob Hoskins) and its complete predictability. There are nice turns from Sally Hawkins and Rosamund Pike. The audience for this is extremely self-selecting. If this general sort of thing would likely appeal to you, it probably will here, but it won’t convert those averse to braindead, feel-good movies by any means. Cole still isn’t much of a director.
The Conspirator (Robert Redford)
Something like the inverse in grace and sophistication when compared to Redford’s superb Quiz Show, this anonymously-directed misfire feels like something that would premiere on cable, at best. The subject, the trial of Mary Surratt, the first woman sentenced to death by the U.S. government, should be a surefire one, but it falls flat at every turn. Famous names fill the roster, but many roles here are stunning miscast (James McAvoy, Justin Long, Alexis Bledel), killing whatever atmosphere is generated. The target audience for this seems to be history buffs, as there are plenty of presumably true details to be gleaned (e.g. soldiers were ordered to stand in front of Mary Surratt as her daughter testified in her defense), often at the expense of quality dialogue or narrative propulsion. Anyone expecting suspense or a competent visual sensibility will need to look elsewhere.
The Illusionist (Sylvain Chomet)
Sylvain Chomet sets out to revive Jacques Tati, an idol, by animating an unfilmed script by the master, but mostly proves that animation is a poor medium for Tati’s style of physical humor. The melancholy mood and small scale here, too, seem a far cry from Tati’s wondrous celebration of life in all its forms. The plot of this film, set in late-50s Europe, involves an underappreciated magician who yearns to protect the innocence of a young woman. It’s an exercise in sustaining delusion, which disturbingly recalls Vertigo, without generating any of the complexity found there. Because The Illusionist at least looks nice, it’s not as overwhelmingly unpleasant for me as The Triplets of Belleville, but that’s hardly high praise. The film is conceptually funny at best most of the time, and the well-realized watercolor visuals are scarcely enough to justify the entire thing. Many seem to be entranced by this, but for me, only the final moments were effective at generating any sort of emotional response.
The First Grader (Justin Chadwick)
This feel-good effort about an 84-year old Kenyan who wants to take advantage of his government’s recent offer of free education to all by enrolling in primary school, has enough of a premise to sustain interest for about one-third of its run time. Director Chadwick brings more visual imagination than usual to what is essentially a character drama, and he manages to wring adequate performances from even his untrained cast members. The mix of modern-era grumblings about the decision to educate an old man and that old man’s flashbacks to his abuse at the hands of other tribes can only go so far, however, and the film quickly runs out of things to say about its scenario. What should be a powerful testament to the need for universal education suffers because the core issue becomes subsumed in a morass of petty squabbles. The characters here are too sketchily drawn to register. Kenya itself scarcely earns any sort of distinctive identity by the film’s end.