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Monthly Archives: July 2011

Tree of Life

Tree of Life posterSynopsis

Set in Waco Texas in the 1950s.  It starts out with Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain learning about the death of their son.  We go forward to Sean Penn thinking about his past.  He is an architect adrift in the steel and glass of the 21st century.  We then hear about grace and nature from the mother.  We learn about lessons in spiritual disinterest from the Book of Job.  We get voice-overs talking in prayer or poetry.  Then we see shots of the origins of the universe.  A dinosaur puts its foot on a sick dinosaur’s neck and then releases its foot.  Then we see domestic life:  Brad Pitt, the strict patriarch bullying his two sons.  They go to church, we see Pitt at work.  We see a man having a fit, people are arrested by the police. Pitt goes abroad and the two boys play and enjoy freedom.  Pitt then loses his job. and acquires some wisdom in life.  Then we get to see Sean Penn wandering on a beach with lots of people, his younger self and family, set to religious music.

Criticism

THe special effects of this film are by Douglas Trumbull who did the effects for 2001 and there have been comparisons between Mallick’s film and Kubrick’s.  At this point it’s interesting to compare the two film makers who have achieved cult status.  If you are a film director who wants to achieve  this status, you make a film once every few years (in Mallick’s case it’s five films in nearly forty years).  You become an eccentric recluse, you don’t give interviews but you deliver the odd aphorism or oracular statement.  You only talk to favoured journalists and critics.  You cover your film in secrecy and your perfectionism is legendary.  You always go way beyond your budget because your film is years in the making.  Your tantrums are famous and every big name actor wants to work with you.  Kubrick and Mallick share these lovable traits.  Because they both use Douglas Trumbull on the cosmic imagery in 2001 and Tree of Life, one can compare the two.  2001 has been called an algebra of metaphors, it’s all quite coherent but in Tree of Life the symbolism doesn’t work, it lacks poetic progression and consistency.  We get a juxtaposition of cosmic scenes, sea life and volcanoes.  Then we get hand held camera close ups of this Waco Texas family sometimes living the American Dream:  all dreamy soft peaks into the bliss of Christian family life until the tyrannical patriarch ruins it all by providing the film with its concession to mere drama.  It’s as if David Attenborough’s Life on Earth footages are mixed up with suburban camcorder scenes.  Where is the tree of life?  They plant a small tree and that’s all.  I expected some sort of thematic development around a biological or symbolic tree but it didn’t turn up.  At the end of the film we get the embarrassing kitsch of Sean Penn strolling around a beach with lots of extras who look like they’ve strolled out of a Mormon service.  These images of nature and religious mysticism  look like commercials for insurance or cars.  People have satisfied looks on their faces as they reach out to one another.  The voice overs seem to be poetic but sound like pretentious whisperings from some failed pop music lyricist.

The characters are ‘American Dream’ stalwarts and on that count are highly suspect.   Brad Pitt may play a brute but he’s supposed to be fundamentally decent because he’s a hardworking Christian.  Interestingly, his hokey piety does not prevent him from being very cynical about his fellow human beings.  The mother is by contrast a gentle soul who looks like an Anglo-Saxon Madonna.  We see her giving water to convicts later floating round a tree for Pete’s sake.  Sean Penn as Pitt’s grown up son is exiled in the steel and glass Babylon of corporate worldliness and wants us to know we took the wrong turning from the Edenic bliss of innocent family life.  He looks like a tapir with haemorrhoids and at the end of the film.  I hoped he’d walk into the sea and not come back.  The kids are casting from the Bible, one’s a goody and the other is like dad.  Mallick knew he had to have drama so he took the easy option of dad being the domestic tyrant.

Mallick is a Christian and his view of nature seems interestingly ambivalent.  He does not share the gnostic view that nature is evil but he does think it is implacably cruel and we must show our humanity by rising above its’ assaults  There are moments of mercy:  the dinosaur, withdrawing its foot from the neck of a wounded dinosaur, the fiery cosmic forces that become grasses and flowers, and sea life but it’s sentimentalized as well.  As in Badlands and the Thin Red Line we get syrupy music celebrating National Geographic prettiness.

After seeing this film a couple of times I’ve come to regard it as a self indulgent celebration of literal mindedness.  We know nature is immense and beautiful, and life is mysterious, but Mallick takes a whole film and a lot of preachy nonsense to tell us so.  Full marks for attempting things that most film makers might not dare to do, but it still fails.  Its visionary ambitions are undermined by folksy Sunday school triteness, so I can understand those French audiences laughing at this and walking out of the film.  I weakened at moments as I hoped I would be watching a masterpiece, but really it’s all pants.

 
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Posted by on July 28, 2011 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Made in Dagenham

Made in Dagenham posterSynopsis

About the 1968 strike at the Ford factory in Dagenham by women machinists who are declared unskilled labour.  They eventually fight for equal pay with men and they are led by the initially reluctant Sally Hawkins when Geraldine James steps down and accepts her as spokesperson.  The foreman is Bob Hoskins who is sympathetic to the women’s cause because he had to live on his mother’s wages and life was very hard.  They take their dispute to the management and the Michigan bosses find out about the strike and want it stopped.  Hawkins has trouble with her male chauvinist husband as well as with male chauvinist trade unionists and communist party bosses.  Geraldine James’ husband kills himself and this motivates James to join the striking women who make an impression at the TUC. conference, and then meet Barbara Castle who has to deal with American bosses and Harold Wilson.  In the end the women win and the Equal Pay Act comes out in 1970.

Criticism

Watching this film aroused curiosity, nostalgia and embarrassment for me.  Curiosity because this is yet another film dealing with recent history and it shows the same faults as other films with similar ambitions.  It’s as if this takes its cue from soap operas of the time, turning characters into broadbrush caricatures.  Trade unionists and women act like TV- depicted so called ‘ordinary people’.  It’s almost a humorous soap opera parody of working life and betrays the same fascinated misperception that middle class Marxists were hampered with at the time.  We only see working people at moments which reassuringly illustrate their ordinariness: concern with money, sexuality, relationship with bosses and other workers as if there is no life beyond these cosy predictabilities.  We are in Mike Leigh country here, I half expected Timothy Spall or Jim Broadbent to come on, playing sturdy avuncular  figures.  It would have been better to have Ken Loach directing this, though I only have a little more time for Loach than I do for Leigh.  I think they have both made a career out of turning working people into noble savages.  Showbiz perceptions of working people and work at the time came from Coronation Street and Miriam Karlin in a comedy called The Rag Trade.  I worked in a couple of factories just after this 1968 strike and they were nastier places than this film shows.   In Made In Dagenham the factory floor is a sort of performance art industrial theatre where personalities clash in a vaudeville stunt, whereas in reality factories were monotonous.

Sally Hawkins plays a cockney sparrer, a bit like Poppy in Happy Go Lucky.  We see an early example of her bravery when she confronts the maths master who’s into corporal punishment (weren’t they all happy to cane pupils then?  Mine was).  Anyway her inarticulate decency hyperventilates like Billy Budd faced with Claggarts’ vileness.  Then she is the feminist hero confounding the chauvinist insecurities of her boring husband.  She gradually acquires articulate self confidence but it’s all done in a sort of moralistic heartwarming way, beloved of Hollywood.  It’s interesting that striking trade unionists can now be regarded as heroes.  Imagine trying to make such a film in the heyday of the strikes in the late 70s.  Of course, it’s now at a safe distance and we can all shed hypercritical tears for what’s quaint.  Hawkins gains that sentimental male approval beloved of patriarchs with a conscience, and I squirmed.  Rosemund Pike plays the Cambridge educated wife of one of the Ford managers and she develops covert sisterly sympathies with Hawkins.  It’s fascinating to see her suffering the patronizing imbecilities of her husband and it does concentrate the mind on how recent and still prevalent male stupidity was and is.  The problem is that this is all done in a jarringly moralistic way, it’s almost Dickension in its simple sentimentality.  Twenty first century audiences swallow this anodyne morality play and it amazes me.  Then there’s the jarring note of Geraldine James turning up with the strikers after she had pulled out because of her marital miseries with her mentally unwell husband.  It reminds me of the Comic Strip comedy team who did a Hollywood spoof on the miners’ strike.

Bob Hoskins did his usual rent-a-working-class stereotype, he’s been doing it since playing a Cockney soldier in Zulu Dawn.  Hoskins is likeable but too ready with the timely noble sentiment.  He is the cow eyed stalwart shedding a tear at the triumph of the just.

To remind us we are in the 60s we get the usual soundtrack of hits, and of course TV must be in black and white like in Life on Mars.  This film succumbs to the dramatic requirements which insist on cartoonish simplicity.  Miranda Richardson plays Barbara Castle, gets her feistiness quite well.  John Sessions is good as the wearily pragmatic politician who had to keep the Americans happy, he plays Harold Wilson.  Did the women strikers see themselves as pioneering feminists?  The film certainly says so:  Hawkins puts her partner right about his claims to saintliness based on surrendering his lordly rights.

Where are the Marxists, the factory gate paper sellers and agitators?  They’ve been edited out, they’d get in the way of the feel good factor, wouldn’t they?  There is nothing about the wider political context.  The women are wheeled onto the public arena like Pocohontas paraded at the court of King James and the film seems happy with that trivialization..

This movie arouses nostalgia because it exposes, without meaning to, the cruel limitations of trade unionists.  There was no vision beyond a decent striving for any better life than the capitalists would grant.  Not really true to life then but occasionally entertaining and the acting is good.

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Posted by on July 10, 2011 in Film Reviews, Out on DVD

 

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Potiche

Potiche posterSynopsis

Set in 1977 in France, directed by Francoise Ozon.  It’s about the owner of an umbrella factory, Fabrice Luchini playing Robert Pujoi.  His wife is the potiche of the title, a trophy wife played by Catherine Demeuve as Suzanne Pujoi.  They have an idealistic student son played by Jeremie Renier and a daughter played by Judith Godreche.  Robert Pujoi is a tyrannical boss, when he falls ill it gives a chance for the rest of the family to run the factory.  Suzanne contacts an old flame Babin (played by Gerard Depardieu) because there is a strike at the umbrella factory.  Babin is the communist trade union boss and Suzanne feels she can do business with him.  She turns out to be quite successful and Robert Pujoi must fight to get back his ownership of the factory (with the help of daughter and shareholders).  Suzanne then competes with Babin to be mayor of this town in northern France, she wins, and it’s a victory for women.  The trophy wife had had a few lovers and was quite freewheeling and her husband did not know about this.

Criticism

This is of course another chance to tour the 1970s and its retro wallpaper, bad hair and tight clothes.  It seems like a sort of French answer to Made in Dagenham, yet another chance to show an era that’s recently gone, but is in some ways pretty remote.  Like the English film, it’s about characters dealing with an industrial dispute, though it’s more lighthearted than Dagenham.  It does remind you though that in the supposedly liberated era of the late 20th century, French women had, and have, some battles to fight.  Witness the shinanigans in the French government and the sexism that’s still rampant.  Deneuve herself plays a bored wife (we’ve had a great many since Madame Bovary), who realizes ker own talent in the boardroom.  She takes on the primitive sexism of her husband, and then the sentimental self pitying sexism of Banin who once had an affair with her, he thinks her son is his, then is told he might not be.  The movie seems to be saying that, whatever the political posturing of the men, they are all sexist and Suzanne has got the measure of them.  When Babin gets jealous, Suzanne puts him in his place by telling him that he has had his share and should be grateful for that.  Strong independent women existed before Carla Bruni, Sarkozy is only the latest in a world of comical husbands.  Robert Pujoi is a cross between Basil Fawlty and Sarkozy.  He throws tantrums when he’s been crossed and when Suzanne asks for a divorce he becomes a self pitying wreck.  He has been cuckolded by Suzanne and is no match for her self belief.

Suzanne takes on Babin and beats him in the election and this could be the start of a new era of feminist self assertion.  The umbrella factory is a reference to the musical of 1964 called Les Parapluies de Cherbourg which starred Deneuve.  The musical was all singing and no speech, Deneuve revives the spirit of that musical in her election victory.

The politics of workers’ strikes was to come to an end by the 80s.  Margaret Thatcher triumphed over Scargill and the miners.  The limitations of labourism are as obvious here as in Made in Dagenham.  Trade union disputes wanted better treatment and better pay from capitalists, that should not be confused with socialism.  When capitalism changed in the 80s, labourism went into decline.  This movie sharply observes the era of the 70s:  the male trade union negotiators in their leather jackets and walrus moustaches.  Where were the women?  The communist mayor became a familiar and avuncular part of French provincial  life and there was nothing threatening about it, indeed it became quite homely

The light hearted soap opera feel about this film recalls the Brian Rix farces in the theatre ( this actor was famous for losing his trousers in the comedies he acted in).  The details of 70s domestic life also reminded me of Mike Leigh’s Abigails’ Party a play about the horrors of the new affluent vulgarity.  Deneuve lives in a horrifyingly well ordered and affluent house.  The son goes through the routines of idealistic rebellion and later you think he’s a bit camp and maybe he’s got a gay friend, but the film draws back from this.  The daughter is an Abba clone who is status seeking.  The household also reminds me of Fawlty Towers, the male boss is a figure of fun and the women are the real brains.

This is a witty and enjoyable film and its’ characters are just about savvy enough to avoid being completely embarrassing.  Naturally, the silly husband treats his secretary as his plaything and she gets feminist revenge on him.  The one curious lack in this is that all the people are Caucasian, there are no Algerians, Vietnamese, or black Africans.

 
 

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