Monthly Archives: November 2011

The Ides of March

Ides of March posterSynopsis

Set in Ohio, USA about a Democrat primary campaign in which Mike Morris (George Clooney) is the Presidential candidate, Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) is a press secretary, and Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is the campaign manager.  Morris’s rival Tom Duffy is played by Paul Gianmatti.  In the cause of promoting a Democrat victory these guys are prepared to lie and manipulate and cheat.  Duffy embarrasses Morris by leaking a meeting with him about coming over to his side when Myers is supposed to be a loyal supporter of Morris.  Then Zara gets kicked out of the campaign.  Myers is involved with Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood) who is Catholic and will get an abortion.  Who is the father?  At the end Myers comes out of it with ideals shot to pieces but career prospects enhanced.


We do not see any Republicans in this film and we don’t need to.  The Republicans are merely the ideological foe, whereas the Democrats struggling for success are bitter rivals.  Ides of March is partly scripted by Clooney from a play Farragut North and like in other plays brought to the screen, there is a solid script that can give the actors convincing dialogue.  Interestingly, for me, the real drama of the film does not come from the ideological debate, but from the human stories behind the political show.  It’s almost like a Potenkin facade, that there is smooth rhetoric and polished delivery to those requiring to be won over and impressed, and behind this there are issues of loyalty, truthfulness and trustworthiness.  If it’s all for the greater cause, are all the compromises and betrayals worth it.   A cynic might say no, given that when Democrats achieve power they cannot do much since they are constantly frustrated by Republicans in Congress.  When Morris gets into debate and takes questions, you can be sure that these arguments are his own views.  He argues against capital punishment by insisting that society must be better than the individuals need for revenge.  He says all the right liberal things about abortion, fighting terrorism, and military adventure abroad (eliminate dependence on fossil fuels).  He is impressive and yet keeps a compromising secret and is prepared to jettison the loyal Zara who has demonstrated the past efficiency of loyalty.  Ryan Gosling as Myers is a self serving weasel.  His is a riveting performance at the centre of the film.  His vanity is stoked by Molly and he pays for her abortion and learns to sacrifice personal relationships in the interests of career advancement.  He is good at outwitting his more experienced seniors and we understand he will do anything to get Morris and himself closer to the White House.  With Democrats like these, who needs Republicans?  It’s not exactly a good advert for the progressive party of social justice.

A big problem I have with the film is that it gives no good roles to women.  They are peripheral to the main political games played by the men.  Molly is a glamorous sidekick to Morris and Myers, she does comparatively menial work. The  women have conventionally supportive roles.  Morris’s wife looks like a younger Hilary Clinton and is an ego prop for her husband.   Marisa Tomei plays another reliable cliche, the cynical hard-bitten journalist who is prepared to embarrass Myers in the promotion of her own career.

I’m puzzled by Clooney’s readiness seemingly to undermine the image of Democrat hopefuls.  There are intelligent and capable people but uncaring of the moral corrosiveness of their tactics.  I was amused by the confrontation of Morris and Myers in a restaurant kitchen, the stereotypical ‘gunfight at O.K. corral’ scene as two deadly egos clash, that seems obligatory in this type of film.  There seems to be an agreement that the game undermines moral values but the greater goal is success.  This nastiness is enjoyably dramatic but leaves me tempted to be dismissive of the whole business, but then the Republicans would be much worse.


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


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Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights posterSynopsis

Andrea Arnold’s version of Emily Bronte’s story about Kathy and Heathcliffe.  The film tries to take in most of the novel.


We’re used to costume dramas with bonnets and posh voices.  Laurence Olivier played a 30’s Heathcliffe and Merle Oberon played Kathy, and of course it was very Hollywood.  We’ve even had Cliff Richard as Heathcliffe for Pete’s sake!  In the novel Heathcliffe is described as a gypsy but here he is black and so it’s an original view.  If white guys can play Othello, why not black actors playing Heathcliffe, and here it works.  There is the racial edge to the brutal treatment he gets from Kathy’s brother and local workers.  He sets off their stolidly resentful xenophobia and it’s very raw along with sexual passion and revenge, just like the weather on the Yorkshire moors.  In fact there’s an awful lot of wind and rain which of course dramatizes things.  If there’s a good rainfall no character will miss the opportunity to go outside and sit in it.   The hand held camera practically pushes our faces into the mud and grass.  Sometimes it looks stunning, quite primeval, as in the rain the moors can look like churned up graves or trenched up mounds of slave laboured earth.  However for me this film is a bit of a cop out because it grabs you by the throat and forces attention as if Arnold might be afraid that if she shows people sitting on the moor and talking in calm weather then it wouldn’t be exciting enough, she relies on the weather to propel the action and dialogue.

We get lots of visceral wallowing in nature all raw, we see trapped rabbits and the slaughtering of a sheep.  The interior of the house is so dark, any candle or firelight only seems to accentuate the gloom.  After all, it’s always grim oop north!

I don’t think Arnold’s film is as radical as it likes to think it is.  The breathless running around in bad weather, the handheld camera shots are just as much a convention as the black and white films of the 30’s and 40’s.  Each is dramatic in a different way, but this Wuthering Heights is a pared down, Ted Hughes, view of nature and people which suits its arthouse orthodoxy.  I kept expecting the kid from Kes to come running across the moors.  The later part of the film, when Kathy has married Linton, looks more like a conventional costume drama.  The young Kathy is dark haired and square faced, the older Kathy is thin faced like a young Greta Scacchi, the difference is ludicrous.  Linton himself is wimpy.

Still, whether intentionally or not, Arnold’s Wuthering Heights forcibly draws attention to the brutalities of suffering, sex, money and power that for all their frills and bonnets, costume dramas can never really distract from.

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Posted by on November 22, 2011 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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We Need to Talk About Kevin

We Need to Talk About Kevin posterSynopsis

Directed by Lynne Ramsay, from the book by Lionel Shriver.  Tilda Swinton is a travel writer and she has a son called Kevin who is a nasty kid.  He treats his mother badly but is nice to his dad.  In one incident Swinton breaks his arm.  He’s enthusiastic when she reads to him about Robin Hood and becomes interested in archery.  She takes him to a restaurant where he’s sarcastic with her.  He’s suspected of blinding his sister in one eye.  He goes to school with his archery equipment….. Swinton is ostracised, her house is attacked, she visits him in jail…..


This is about a ‘Columbine’ style massacre at a school and about the relations between mother and son.  Tilda Swinton is at her twitchiest best playing a travel writer who cannot get through to her sarcastic sneering son who was very late being potty trained.  He is diagnosed early in life as being possibly autistic.  In our therapy culture era we seem to be much taken with victims yet we downplay the occasional victimizing of other people by a few designated as ‘victims’.  Kevin is a manipulative little creep, social services would presumably look for signs of inadequate parenting.  Is the film about the ordeal of motherhood as such?  That women are compelled to invest much more into a child’s upbringing, however selfless the father may be?  Swinton is a writer who lives in a nice house.  After Kevin’s murder spree she is under siege in an empty house.  She has to scrub away the red paint flung at the walls and floors of her home.  These scenes remind me of the social and psychological disintegration at the end of Burt Lancaster’s The Swimmer or it’s a sort of J.G. Ballard depiction of impending mental breakdown in the face of persecution like in High Rise.

I’ve not yet read the book so I can only go by the film showing Kevin being nasty to his mother. She is pathetically grateful when he deigns to be nice to her.  The main problem with this is the implausibility of the domestic set up, surely the father would see through Kevin’s different treatment of himself and his wife, but he doesn’t seem to see that.  Swinton is left isolated in a hell of Kevin’s manipulative vindictiveness.  The husband cannot seem to offer any parental help.  Why doesn’t Swinton ask for help rather than stoically suffer?  Is she herself inclined to a solipsism that was provoked by misplaced pride in her self suffering?  As a 90’s travel writer presumably she has some right-on, advanced, view on child rearing so maybe she over estimates her ability to handle Kevin.  When they are in a restaurant together, Kevin sneers at his mother’s liberal chic, he tells her how she will drink her wine and say all the right things and show her parenting skills.  This is a satirical swipe at all those American films which thrive on evasion of the real problems of family life and growing up.  Kevin is well aware that he is a problem and he sees no reason to be  ameniably unenigmatic.   The generational gulf seems unbridgeable when she looks for clues in his diaries, but the pages are empty and he blocks her efforts to find clues from a computer disc.

I don’t think the film can seriously try to “get into the mind of a killer”.  How can it find the answers in the complications of any mind?  At the end of the film Kevin seems to be as uncertain and baffled as his mother.  The film tries the usual cinematic tricks of showing the subtleties of twitchily neurotic verbal and body language.  The camera closes right in on personal peculiarities such as the ritualizations of feeding.  Then the camera closes in on the bright echoey flatnesses of the affluent household.  The snatches of ‘world music’ echo chamber the awkward isolation around mother and son.  Well acted, patchily convincing.


Posted by on November 8, 2011 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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The Help

The Help posterSynopsis

Set in Mississippi in 1961 during the black struggle for civil rights, it stars Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer as maids.  Viola tells the story of her life working for whites.  Emma Stone plays Skeeter who is an aspiring writer who wants to tell the maids’ stories. Skeeter’s mother has a secret about the black maid she employed, she did not defend her against white guests.  Skeeter has white friends who are society ladies and seem to be squeaky clean housewives like in Revolutionary Road.  When Skeeter’s book ‘The Help’ is published the white women get angry about the exposure of their racism.  Octavia Spencer works for a white woman, Janice Chastain, who doesn’t want her husband to know she relies on a maid.  He finds out, Skeeter has a promising career.  There’s civil rights on the TV.


This is a big let down.  It’s as if the last fifty years had never happened.  This is like nostalgia for Gone with the Wind and the simplicity and ease (for whites) of a world where black people are subjected to many forms of racist abuse.  If you want to defend the film by saying that it only shows the culture the races lived in, then why isn’t more prominence given to the Civil Rights Movement and how it could impinge on their lives?  The film wallows in sentimental familiarities which work well as a shallowly kitsch story but which are unacceptable to black people.  The star of this film is a white woman (Skeeter, the writer).  The best that black people can hope for in this film is to be well treated by whites!  It’s all ‘Uncle Tom’ and I’m surprised it hasn’t been picketed.  Jessica Chastain learns about cooking and the wisdom of life from her black maid who is then expected to be grateful that she can continue to work for them!  The Help takes the face value of inanities of condescension and turns them into matters for gentle comedy.  Some of the audience I watched this with, really missed the point in so far as they appeared to want the black maids to be nice and happy in their domestic slavery.  It’s crass enough to make Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner look sophisticated.  At least that film was sincere and had the merit of well intentioned naivety.  That final speech by Spencer Tracey was heartrending in it’s clumsy innocence.  The Help takes that world and endorses it’s sentimental confusion about race. One of the tragedies of racism is how it distorts perception between races.  The inherent disadvantages for one race diminish the prospects for disinterested interaction.  The film Mississippi Burning looked at the same world and although it starred whites and went to patronizingly painstakingly lengths to involve blacks, it at least faced the struggle for social justice full on.  This film trivialises and caricatures race relations on white terms.  It’s up to the whites to see their moral shortcomings, sometimes achieved through black agency but in a way that sentimentally sanctions the very inequalities it should be attacking.  By that, I mean that it takes as rosy a view about what it thinks should be the relations between employer and maid as in Gone with the Wind.

The racist snobs are predictable whites of the southern states:  needy, infantile, narcissistic and neurotic.  Naturally they will get their comeuppance but only at the level of personal revenge, they are satirised in the book ‘The Help’ which Skeeter ‘writes’.  This simply endorses the whites’ morally repentant approach and plays down the need for a political response.  We get Medgar Evers on TV and we hear a bit of Martin Luther King.  There is one incident in a bus and a maid is arrested, but we do not get the full on vindictiveness of the racist whites.  This film simply escapes its full malevolence.  The only scene where this film scores a hit is in the Christmas party raising money for African children, the hilarious irony of white racists playing Mrs Jellyby in helping Africans is nicely observed.  Mostly this is an offensive disaster.

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Posted by on November 3, 2011 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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