White Oleander is a movie where men seem almost insignificant except when they hurt women.
The focus of the movie is Astrid, a fourteen year old who knows nothing of her father and depends on her free-spirited, free-thinking artist mother.
When her mother is arrested for murder, Astrid begins an odyssey that takes her into the intimate life of two foster families as well as into a social services institution. It is a journey of growth, despite her mother, a journey of love of which her mother is jealous, a journey of freedom to find her inner strength and to accept the support of those who love her.
Astrid is played by Alison Lohman, 21 at the time. She is utterly convincing as she ages from fourteen to early adulthood. Lohman was also seen to great advantage (again playing young teenager) in the con artist comedy, Matchstick Men with Nicolas Cage. Her performance helps the audience to get into the mind and heart of a damaged girl and what she has to go through emotionally before she finds her deeper self.
Michelle Pfeiffer is also excellent as her mother. At first she seems strong and sympathetic. As we get to know her better, we see a self-centred and resentful woman. In prison, her poisonous bitterness comes to the fore, continually destructive of her daughter's chances to grow. Finally, we learn more of the truth about her and watch her face the dilemma of her life when Astrid challenges her to sacrifice her love for her.
The two foster mothers could not be more different. Robin Wright Penn has ended to play very serious, sometimes impassive roles. This time she lets rip as a born-again alcoholic and addict whom people write off as 'trailer trash' and who falls victim to her jealousies and rage instead of trusting in her faith and her capacity for mothering. Renee Zellwegger plays a mousey would-be actress, affluent, sentimental, rather naive but who shows Astrid glimpses of motherly love. Patrick Fugit, the young journalist of Almost Famous, plays an artist who is able to give Astrid the support she needs.
The movie was directed by Peter Kosminsky who made a number of docudramas for the BBC. Amongst the screenplays written by Mary Agnes Donaghue was Veronica Guerin, the story of the murdered Dublin crusading journalist.
Novelist Alexander Trocchi is now being re-discovered. He is seen as one of the Beat novelists, reflecting the existentialist trends of the time, the anti-hero who lives in the present, who moves from one episode in life to another, often without regard to consequences. Trocchi was, for decades, a desperate heroin addict. His anti-hero seems addictive but is something of a sex-addict.
This film version of his 1955 novel re-creates Glasgow in the early 50s. This has been superbly done. The characters work on the barges in the canal system, transporting coal and fuel. We feel we have been there and experienced this life. The photography is complemented by an atmospheric score by David Byrne (of Talking Heads) and the lyrics of a final credits song about anti-heroes.
Ewan McGregor is a drifter, Joe, a reader and would-be writer, working on a barge managed by your ordinary labourer, Les, a fine, bluff Peter Mullan, and owned by his hard-working wife, Ella, played by Tilda Swinton, completely convincing as a dowdy woman trapped in drudgery and an increasingly drab marriage who responds to the drifter discovering passion and sensuality that she had never suspected.
The other principal character is Cathie, Emily Mortimer. She has embarked on an affair with Joe which has unexpected consequences which are revealed in flashbacks which are initially confusing, making us think at first that they are part of the narrative. Gradually, they build up another story and to a climax where Joe has to the opportunity to make a profound moral choice.
While Ewan McGregor acts well, his character is difficult and challenging to respond to - which, of course, is the aim of the film-makers. He is both charming and impersonal, sensitive and callous, sometimes deep, sometimes callow. He is also sexually impetuous.
This is gritty film-making, a slice of life where characters are not simply good or evil, but tantalisingly complex.
This film received some of the worst reviews of 2003 and was a notable failure at the box office. This seems strange because, at the time, the stars, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez were an item and planning marriage - which did not take place.
Writer-director Martin Brest has some notable films in his CV, particularly the first Beverly Hills Cop, Midnight Run and Scent of a Woman. He also directed Meet Joe Black. Scent and Joe Black were particularly long, moving at a stately pace and with some padding. This is one of the major problems with Gigli. It is far too long and inflated for its very slight plot. Ben Affleck has often seemed wooden in his performances and this is the case here. On the other hand, Jennifer Lopez has a lively screen presence. They are joined by newcomer, Justin Bartha, as a mentally impaired young man. There are brief cameos by Christopher Walken and Al Pacino (whom Brest directed in his Oscar winning Scent of a Woman) which lift the energy somewhat.
Affleck is a petty gangster, a loner dominated by his mother (Lanie Kazan in a bright cameo). When he is asked to abduct the impaired young man and finds Lopez as an unwilling partner, he bumbles along, finds that she is lesbian, is asked to cut off the young man's thumb... And then they find themselves in the clutches of Pacino as a big-time gangster. Will they escape, will they find romance, will the young man get to go to the Baywatch beach which is his main ambition in life? The film spends two glossy hours answering these questions which are not really (rhymes with Gigli) of major moment.
Underworld is a surprise, an intense vampire thriller that boast top class photography, impressive sets, plenty of action, vibrating sound engineering, all that horror fans might want. It is likely to become a cult favourite.
In the dark future, fortunately unbeknown to ordinary human beings, a centuries' long battle between vampires and werewolves (Lycans) is coming to a head. Bands of vampires, armed with sophisticated guns and weaponry, seek out the Lycans to destroy them. Meanwhile the leader of the Lycans aims to capture a human who is half vampire, half lycan, to get his blood and continue the werewolf domination and, perhaps, achieve peace. (In the past, the lycans were the servants of the vampires.) By know you will know whether you want to immerse yourself in the Underworld, because this is what director, Len Wiseman, and his screenwriters do.
At first, it is not easy to identify who is who, who is pursuing whom, and whose side we are supposed to be on. What we discover is that there is evil on both sides. Kate Beckinsale (whose cape goat and gear is more than reminiscent of The Matrix) is a roving squad leader who rescues the lycan's victim (Scott Speedman). Bill Nighy has a great old time as the vampire chief revived to fight new battles. Michael Sheen brings an unexpected sympathy to the chief lycan and reveals that the past was not all that vampire history claimed it was.
Visually and aurally most impressive, Underworld sets out to create a fantasy world of good and evil, but not in stark contrast and it does it in a way to satisfy horror fans.LONDON - 6 October 2003 - 1,396 words