Indebted to highly credible plot
Published 02/10/2011 | 05:00
There is an element of irony about the reality that director John Madden's latest feature, The Debt, is not inspired by a true story. Starring Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington and Jessica Chastain, this espionage thriller is an absorbing work in its own right but what establishes it as a cut above the ordinary is its credible take on the psychological consequences that can ensue when truth is the first casualty. Does the truth really set you free? You'll be better able to judge after seeing this gripping and fairly flawless piece.
Jumping between 1966 and 1997, the film focuses on a 1966 mission undertaken by Israel's Mossad, aimed at capturing Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christenson). Loosely based on Auschwitz's "Angel of Death", Joseph Mengele, Vogel is working as an obstetrician in East Berlin when an Israeli team led by Stefan (Marton Csokas), David (Worthington) and Rachel (Chastain) travel to Germany with the intention of bringing him to justice.
The operation doesn't go according to plan but the returning agents are still hailed as heroes. Thirty-one years later and back in Israel, two of the three are still surfing the wave of adulation. Rachel, now played by Mirren, has a journalist daughter who has written a book celebrating her mother's exploits while the ambitious Stefan, now played by Tom Wilkinson, has become a cabinet minister. Only David, now played by Ciaran Hinds, wears a haunted expression that suggests skeletons have started to rattle in their respective psyches. Naturally, the truth about what transpired back in East Berlin is soon revealed.
Mirren, switching to Robogran-mode towards the conclusion, plays a part in lurching proceedings close to melodrama but the strength of the storyline ensures credibility isn't compromised.
Guilty of Romance
With previous releases such as Love Exposure and Cold Fish, cult Japanese director Sion Sono has developed a reputation for reliability when it comes to delivering provocative and controversial cinema. It's a reputation that's guaranteed to be enhanced by the viscerally arresting Guilty of Romance, the third instalment in his self-styled "Trilogy of Hate".
Set in Tokyo around the "eve of the 21st Century", this striking piece is full-frontal in its depiction of humanity's appetite for both self-destruction and depravity. The story revolves around the investigation of a murder in the city's seedy love-hotel area and two women who just might have made a contribution to the macabre crime scene.
Megumi Kagurazaka takes the central role as Izumi, a housewife trapped in a sexually inert marriage with a famous novelist. The downward slide is triggered when a chance meeting leads to a flirtation with a soft-porn shoot. Her journey towards the dark-side becomes turbo-charged, however, after an encounter with the psychologically volatile Mitsuko (Makoto Togashi), a nymphomaniac lecturer who moonlights as a street-walker.
Megumi is drawn into a web of self-destruction. Scenes of violence and degradation ensue as the director delivers a meditation on malevolence that is strangely absorbing.
Guilty of Romance is not for you if you're looking to have your faith in humanity restored but it should prove a rewarding experience for those in the market for edgy and challenging art-house fare.
Now showing at the IFI
What's Your Number?
Ally (Anna Faris) has problems; she's taken to heart a fashion-mag article that says the average number of partners a US women is likely to have is 10.5. Her bedpost notches are closer to 19, sending her into a tizzy over why not one passed muster in the long-term relationship stakes.
Hoping to halt any lengthening of this list, she searches for past lovers to see if any have since morphed into marriage material. Helping her is hunky and insufferably smug neighbour Colin (Chris Evans). The two end up spending a lot of platonic time together.
Based on the Karyn Boznak chick-lit novel 20 Times A Lady, the film melds the consumerist chic of Sex And The City with Bridget Jones's plucky clown. Faris fits perfectly into this template with expressive comic turns and wide-eyed charm. The pace is breezy and the script has a definite edge to it in terms of content, putting the "screw" in "screwball".
The fun stops there, however. On the whole, it's unimaginative, relying on all the rom-com mantras; field advice from family and friends but ignore them and go for the guy next door, declare all in a big speech at the end, etc.
Space? Wagner? Widescreen pomposity? No, it's not a re-screening of Terrence Malick's The Tree Of Life, it's the new offering from Lars von Trier, the sadist behind Dancer In The Dark and Antichrist who enjoys walloping audiences into hopelessness.
Bar deciding life as we know it must perish by the hand of a colliding planet, this von Trier seems less confrontational. The first half is taken up with the wedding of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). With society thus far unaware of the threat imposed by the titular death star, their reception is a quiet riot of bickering parents (John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling shine), fretting on the part of the bride's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and second thoughts. The scene is hilarious in parts, showing von Trier can do an observational set piece.
The second act is in more familiar territory, with severely depressed Justine in the care of Claire and millionaire husband Kiefer Sutherland. Scientists are saying Melancholia will avoid Earth but Claire has seen websites that disagree. When it materialises she's right, the sisterly dynamic unravels.
It's still von Trier -- cameras shoved into actors' faces and humour eked out of dark corners -- but he's restrained here, offering us the choice to panic and fight with Claire or stop struggling and accept his and Justine's cosmic nihilism.
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