Moving tale of a courageous girl in South Africa

Khomotso Manyaka and Lerato Mvelase in Life, Above All
Khomotso Manyaka and Lerato Mvelase in Life, Above All

AN emotionally powerful drama from rural South Africa, Life, Above All (Cert 12A) is sustained by a marvellous central performance by a youngster who has to assume responsibility beyond her years just like the character she is playing.

Oliver Schmitz’s film, based on a novel by Canadian writer Allan Stratton, opens with 12-year-old Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka) having to arrange the funeral of her baby sister while her mother lies stricken with grief and illness and her feckless drunken stepfather has gone missing.

Gradually she becomes aware that a stigma has attached itself to her family with cruel rumours circulating in her village which reach the point where her mother goes into hiding.

It is all perceived through the girl’s eyes so the real cause of the hostility and fears is never spelled out, but it’s clearly the major blight that is afflicting Africa but remains shrouded in denial. The redoubtable Chanda has the determination and courage to defy her elders and supposed betters and restore dignity to her family.

It’s heart-rending stuff, but there’s room for some gentle humour between the characters. And there’s a truly lump-in-the-throat moment at the end when Chanda finds the loving support for which she yearns from an unexpected quarter leaving us with a sense of hope.

First-time director Oren Moverman, an experienced screenwriter, comes up with a different angle on the effects of modern warfare in The Messenger (Cert 15).

The film follows two Casualty Notification Officers, men faced with the painful task of breaking the news to next of kin of the death of soldiers in the Iraq war.

One is an old hand at this unenviable duty, Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), and the other, Sgt Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), injured in combat and has been reluctantly transferred to this assignment for his last few months of service.

The two men are chalk and cheese - Harrelson is his typical extrovert self as the upright officer you suspect to be on the brink of meltdown and Foster all brooding intensity but unable to conceal his compassion . Stone has a strict set of rules for doing their job, the most important of which is no emotional contact with people which Montgomery defies by becomes drawn to a young widow (a beautifully subtle performance from Samantha Morton).

Moverman, who himself has seen combat in the Israeli army, shows that the horrors of war and the drama are not only played out on the battlefield.

The equivalent in English to the French word Potiche (Cert 15) is “trophy wife” a description to be applied to Catherine Deneuve who is married to mean-spirited umbrella factory owner Fabrice Luchini.

When an industrial dispute breaks out he is kidnapped by the workers and while incapacited Deneuve is entrusted with running the family firm and surprises everyone, not least in forging an alliance with Communist mayor Gerard Depardieu (who share a secret past liasion).

Director Francois Ozon has adapted a popular Parisian stage farce of 1977 for reasons one suspects are largely lost to us in translation but there’s fun in seeing Deneuve letting her hair down.

A collaboration between Ridley Scott’s production company, Scott Free, and YouTube has resulted in Life in a Day (Cert 12A), a documentary charting a single day, July 24 2010, through the videocams of people around the world.

More than 80,000 videos from 197 countries, either submitted via YouTube or from people supplied with cameras in the developing world, contributed 4,500 hours of footage. Touching the Void’s Kevin Macdonald supervised the editing down into a 95-minute film using 331 different clips.

It would be nice to report that it is 95 minutes of endless fascination but as with anyone’s day there are dull moments amid the insightful, humorous, dramatic or plain weird. There’s birth (human and giraffe), marriage (Elvis-themed, OAP-style), and death (a cow in a Bologna abattoir, the Duisburg pop festival disaster) and the plain everyday. Its overall message is what we know only too well – it takes all sorts.

As post-apocalyptic vampire road movies go, Stake Land (Cert 15) is pretty standard fare. Teenager Martin (Connor Paolo) finds himself alone in the world after slavering bloodsuckers destroy his family until a mysterious stranger known as Mister (Nick Damici) turns up and takes him under his wing.

They set off in a heavily armed convertible across the ravaged landscape fighting off nocturnal zombies and picking up assorted other survivors now and again as they head for New Eden, a place they believe to be a sanctuary from the epidemic. And if the zombies aren’t enough, director Jim Mickle throws in a sect of bloothirsty Christian fundamentalists and there’s added interest in the sight of one-time Top Gun Kelly McGillis almost unrecognisable as a nun in peril.