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Nov 10/14

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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: The Good Lie (Movie); Pride (Movie)

The Good Lie (Movie) written by Margaret Nagle; directed by Philippe Falardeau; starring Reese Witherspoon, Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jal, Kuoth Wiel, Corey Stall, Joshua Mikel, Jimi Kocina

We start with a bit of recent history. Voice-overs and text on screen tell us a bit about the Sudan war in the 1990s. Not much of the political context is established, but maybe that’s appropriate, given that we’re focusing on the lives of some children to whom the politics might not be very relevant. All they know is that their village in the south of Sudan has been destroyed and their parents killed. A little band of about six kids sets out to walk to safety. First they head to Ethiopia; then they hear that Kenya is safer.

The next fifteen or twenty minutes of the movie give us the kids’ arduous trek across barren lands. We keep getting subtitles that tell us how many days and how many miles have passed. We see the escapees suffering through sickness, thirst, hunger, fatigue. One of them dies and is buried by the others; another is taken captive.

Through all of this, I was conscious not so much of the kids’ ordeal but of the toil of the filmmakers. I kept thinking of how they would have had to manage these children (not very good actors) to get brief snippets of usable film. You could almost hear the director: "Now I want you to look scared..." "Now you need to look tired....," "Try to sound really angry here...." All these directorial efforts pay off to the extent that the tale gets told in a stately, plodding way, with heart-rending closeups and panoramic shots of the searing beauty of the landscape, all accompanied, of course, by soulful music. Nothing spontaneous. Since the different personalities don’t emerge clearly, it’s hard to identify with them as individuals and to appreciate each one’s struggle accordingly.

Things pick up when we jump about ten years forward, to 2000. The four kids who survived the journey have become young adults while living in a refugee camp in Kenya. Word comes to them that their names are on a list for emigration to America. On arrival in Kansas City, there’s predictable humour about their bafflement when confronted with things like telephones and packaged food and women who support themselves without the help of a husband. All interesting, in a way. But where’s the dramatic hook? Are we just going to watch these guys settle in? Or are there any interactions among characters that are going to lead to anything? Any plot, in other words?

Well, there’s the problem about Abital (Kuoth Wiel), the young woman who accompanied the three men to the US from Kenya. She was sent to Boston, because no home in Kansas City was willing to take her. The men are allowed to live in an apartment together in Kansas City but it’s unthinkable to the locals that Abital be allowed to live with them. The men refer to her as their sister but it was never quite clear to me whether she was biologically a sibling of any of them. In any case, they very much want to have her with them. Will they be able to?

Also, there’s a bit of a problem when one of the men (Emmanuel Jal) begins to question his identity in the American scene. Part of this guy’s problem is that he’s discovering an attitude to life that’s so different from the one he learned back in his village. This new outlook on things is coming to him thanks to a couple of co-workers in a factory. These two guys (I think they’re Joshua Mikel and Jimi Kocina) give devastatingly accurate versions of a couple of not-very-bright-and-not-so-cultured average American dudes. They stand out as a couple of the most real people in the movie.

And then there are the problems with the employment counsellor who’s supposed to be finding jobs for the refugees. Reese Witherspoon serves up the character as a woman who’s feisty, efficient and brisk but not overflowing with the milk of human kindness. Because she doesn’t know much about the background of these guys, some conflicts arise between her and them. When she begins to care more about these clients of hers, there’s the risk of her performance tipping over into sentimentality, but it marks a high point of the movie when she does finally beam one huge, approving smile on them.

The other stand-out performance comes from Arnold Oceng as the young man who has been forced to take on the leadership of the little band of emigrs. The title of the movie comes from a scene in an American lit class where he learns about Huck Finn’s lie that was deemed a good lie because it saved the life of his friend Jim. I kept wondering what relevance this had to the developments in this movie but it turns out, eventually, to have bearing on a magnanimous act of altruism that comes as a complete surprise. Mr. Oceng handles this incident with the subtlety and nuance that help to make it very moving.

So you come away from the movie feeling that you’ve seen a good story. Also, you’ve learned something about life in a refugee camp. And there’s something satisfying about being informed, via the final credits, that many of the actors are actual refugees from Sudan. But, given that the movie doesn’t really engage you until about half way through, you can’t say that it’s a great one.

 

Pride (Movie) written by Stephen Beresford; directed by Matthew Warchus; starring Ben Schnetzer, George MacKay, Andrew Scott, Joseph Gilgun, Monica Dolan, Faye Marsay, Chris Overton, Dominic West, Paddy Considine, Jessica Gunning, Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy.

What a great concept for a movie: Group A, which is downtrodden and persecuted, decides to support Group B, which is also downtrodden and persecuted. Only trouble is, Group B is suspicious of Group A. If Group A proceeds with its kindly intentions, that will create one hell of a lot of conflict with Group B.

In this case, that great setup happens to be a true story. Group A consists of some gays and lesbians living in London. Given that this is the mid 1980's, they’re not exactly basking in public approval. They notice that the miners in Wales, struggling to sustain their strike against the indomitable force of Margaret Thatcher, are also suffering a lot of harassment. So the London group, under the leadership of Mark Ashton, a kind of social activist, decides to form a collective known by the acronym LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support Miners). They start collecting money, then find a village in Wales that needs help because of the strike. But the village is not exactly ready, to put it mildly, for help from these people.

If you’re looking for one of those perfectly constructed British comedies along the lines of Billy Elliot, this is it. Yes, the movie – like its predecessors – is contrived and manipulative. The lines between the good guys and the bad guys are clearly drawn. But it’s excellently done with great dialogue, entertaining characters, brilliant pacing and editing. In those respects, it’s very theatrical. People are always tossing off clever quips that you don’t get in real life and scenes are perfectly constructed. In other words, it’s by no means a movie of the Mumblecore genre. There’s lots of peppy music to keep things moving – although I’m sorry that we had to wait until about half way through for some glorious Welsh choral singing.

Of course, none of this would work without the top-notching British acting. As Mark, the leader of the LGSM’s, Ben Schnetzer struck me, at first, as rather an odd casting choice. There’s something babyishly pretty about his face; he doesn’t look like an activist. But he grows on you, and, in the end, you can’t doubt the sincerity of the character. Paddy Considine, as the union rep who first meets with the Londoners, gives a lovely portrayal of a man whose horizons may be limited but who is open to being understanding and accepting. Bill Nighy, looking older and more frail than I’ve seen him before, gives us a Welsh villager who seems to be struggling with some inner pain that makes him compassionate towards others. Faye Marsay does a rip-roaring job as a snarky lesbian who turns out to be one of the most loyal and trustworthy people in the movie. After Imelda Staunton’s perfect performance in Vera Drake, she seems to be over-acting the few other times I’ve seen her, but it could be that her gusto suits the character of the Welsh villager she’s portraying here.

In the midst of the politicking and bickering, there are more personal dramas going on. George MacKay plays a young Londoner who happens to be underage according to the British laws of the times (he’s not yet twenty-one). Trying to accept that he is gay, he has to hide his involvement in LGSM from his parents. Andrew Scott is intriguing as a forty-ish gay man who welcomes the LGSM’s to meet in his bookstore but there is sadness about him: he hasn’t been home to Wales for many years because his mother rejected him for being gay. And, this being the mid-1980's, there is the additional stress of the dawning awareness that AIDS is beginning to sweep through the gay community.

To me, one of the most interesting things about such a crowd-pleasing movie is that it takes for granted that we viewers today can accept gays with the open-heartedness and equanimity that were lacking in that Welsh village back in the 1980's. (If you have problems about the acceptability of homosexuality, this isn’t the movie for you.) In that sense, you could say that, although the miners eventually lost their fight, the gays won theirs.

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