Monthly Archives: December 2011

Take Shelter

Take Shelter posterSynopsis

About an American working man played by Michael Shannon, his name is Curtis.  He has premonitory dreams, or thinks he has.  He tries to warn people of an impending storm and flood.  The visions damage his marital and working relationships, especially when he builds a shelter in his garden.  He suspects he may be mentally ill, paranoia and schizophrenia run in his family.  There is a storm and he and his family take shelter.  Later they are at the coast and they all see something…..


This is a well done psychological thriller, if a little slow moving.  It cleverly manipulates our suspicions that he may not be mentally ill since he seems to have some insight into his possible mental condition.  Here we have mental illness that can endow its sufferer with shamanistic powers.  We expect some kind of objective validation for his dreams and waking visions.  He sees his wife in an enigmatic pose, furniture rises up and is suspended, he is attacked by his dog and wakes up to feel real pain.  Watching an American family disintergrate has become one of the blood sports of choice among film goers, it can be gripping because of what they have to lose.  We follow the familiar trajectory of marital discord, job loss and alienation from friends.  In this case, the visions cause embarrassment, unemployment, and increasing dysfunctionality.  When the storm really does hit, you feel that he has been vindicated but maybe not.  Does his wife follow him into the shelter to humour him or is the storm really a big threat?  This is almost a Twilight Zone moment and the film draws it out.  At the end you feel that he might get the endorsement from nature that we suspected.  This is the sort of role that Nicholas Cage gets, so it is nice to see a lesser known actor playing the lead.  Jessica Chastain plays his wife dealing with domestic and natural upheaval, er, like she did in Tree of Life.  The acting is pretty convincing and their response to their predicament is well observed.  The husband is like a Cassandra whose warnings are ignored, and he is also like Noah trying to deal with an impending flood in the face of indifference and ridicule.  I wonder if Michael Fish has watched this film (Fish is the meteorologist who in the late ’80s got a forecast spectacularly wrong).  This film seems to be saying that we can ultimately only rely on ourselves when finance, government, or nature go wrong.  It’s easy to knock away the everyday supports.  A story with a moral to it.


Posted by on December 20, 2011 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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Hugo posterSynopsis

Set in Paris in 1931, it’s about a boy living a reclusive life in the Parisian railway station, a bit like Quasimodo living such a life in Notre Dame.  He plays a battle of wits with the station inspector played by Sacha Baron Cohen.  Hugo keeps a mechanical man, and the blueprint for it interests Ben Kingsley, a shop owner who is interested in its design.  He is befriending a girl who reads adventure books.  It turns out that Ben Kingsley used to be involved in the origins of cinema in 1895.  Hugo learns of this.  There are a few life stories in the railway station which may have happy endings: Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour might get together.  Sacha Baron Cohen might get together with the flower seller.


Martin Scorsese’s tribute to cinema and it’s indebtedness to its origins in the Lumiere shows of 1895.  We’ve all seen the rocket flying into the eye of the moon.  Scorsese brings his documentary thoroughness to the story of early film.  The film’s tribute to film is illustrated by the little stories in the railway station: the orphan defying pompous authority, the kindly book-lending father figure (played by Christopher Lee), the Keystone cop figure, the friendship over a dog that can lead to marriage, the pompous policeman’s salvation through a flower seller.  These are the conventional plots of early silent movies.  The mythology of early Hollywood is enhanced by this because it shows ‘ordinary’ people overcoming adversity in a somewhat unreal setting yet at the same time that mythology is grounded in a more recognizable everyday reality.  Scorsese sets it up as close to a possible reality and has no need for melodrama to accentuate the sentimentality.

This is a charming fairy story where special effects are used to greatest effect in the palatial machinery of the railway station, the Gare du Nord with a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory makeover.  The streets of Paris in the snow look like an arty Christmas card.  I expected a sort of mechanical man take over of the Eiffel Tower where the boy could prance about like Quasimodo but that didn’t happen.  The mechanical man, who looks like the colossus in Metropolis, briefly comes to life to write about early cinema but Scorsese resists the temptation to have it take over the film as a sort of metal Pinnochio.  The mechanical man is like a futurist trophy, a promise of the technological possibilities of the 20th century with a hint of Faustian menace if misused.  Scorese tells us in this film that the First World War frustrated the development of Lumiere cinema, which was then inherited by Hollywood, and so this is Hollywood’s belated tribute.

Sacha Baron Cohen uses Pink Pantherish french, but he wisely doesn’t overdo it, he is a war hero having survived the trenches.  He is capable of redemption at the end.  Scorsese wants even the most unsympathetic figure to be capable of salvation and he wants to promote the power of cinema.  A superb fairy story.


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Resistance posterSynopsis

Set in South Wales during 1944-45, it shows what life might have been like had the D Day invasions failed and the Germans had invaded Britain.  A group of soldiers come upon a village and lodge there.  The Welshmen have all gone off to fight and the women reluctantly accept the soldier’s help in farming.  A relationship develops between a farmer’s wife Sarah played by Andrea Riseborough and a German captain. Tommy Atkins, Michael Sheen’s character, warns a lad who stays behind that collaborators should be shot.  This lad shoots at one of the women on her way back from a horse fair, he accidentally shoots the horse.  Sheen turns up……  due to events that follow the Gestapo will be involved here.  Riseborough leaves and the Captain stays to face the Gestapo.


A fascinating if rather slow moving look at alternative history.  It’s all very austere like another film set in Welsh sheep farming country, Sleep Furiously, but with guns.  We see German soldiers execute captured fighters and there are swastikas at the horse fair, which is like a graphic novel novel touch.  Alternative history can come perilously close to slapstick, perhaps because we have such a weight of hindsight which we call ‘history’, that any alternative looks like an imposter from a fantasy.

Andrea Riseborough, with her wan pre-Raphaelite gaze, is like a long suffering martyr of lost love and weary patience.  We know she will soften her attitude to the German captain, if she didn’t there wouldn’t be any dramatic development and of course the film requires that.  The film tries to show what it would be like to be occupied.  How would we have managed?   Would we have had the courage and strength to be in the resistance?  What about the constant terror of pain if the Gestapo catch you?  Because we did not face that existential ordeal we have the luxury of vicarious attitudinizing, reducing it to a sort of drama class in moral choices.  Before he joins the men in the hills, Michael Sheen advises a stay behind lad that we are made by our choices, but Sartre would say the same in Existentialism is a Humanism at this time.  The lad does make a choice and it involves deadly consequences.  The film skilfully tautens the terror of the Gestapo threat and this trumps the temptation to lapse into complacent resignation, so it keeps you on edge, though I could have done with fewer shots of noble profiles gazing into the mists.

The German soldiers here are not the automatons of the average war film, nor the gross caricatures that convinced gullible TV audiences that ‘Allo ‘Allo was actually funny.  Just as I thought we were getting the usual ‘Good German’ routine, the Captaln shows his toughness by being brutish to Sheen. In war films we have been used to the ‘ordinary German soldier is a good German’ stereotype, it makes you wonder how Hitler managed to gather enough soldiers to invade Poland!  Hitler had millions of accomplices.

There are some vivid cameos, especially the Mappa Mundi hidden in a cave.  Welsh hill farming is closely observed.  Running through all this is the boundary between collaboration and getting by, what can actually be construed as collaboration?  The film negotiates this problem well, as it shows the arbitrariness in the notion of collaboration when we see it justifying needless cruelty as when the lad tries to shoot the Welsh farm woman.

A fascinating look at what might have been.



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My Week with Marilyn

My Week with Marilyn posterSynopsis

About Monroe’s visit to Britain in 1956 to make The Prince and the Showgirl with Laurence Olivier.  She gets friendly with Colin Clarke who is a member of the famous Clarke clan.  He is smitten with Monroe.  Monroe has a difficult working relationship with Olivier but eventually the film is made and Clarke has to get over his infatuation.


The 1950s are very popular these days, I think it’s got a lot to do with returning to the supposed certainties of the past. There was still deference and civility brought on by the privations of war and rationing.  People and their clothing look fairly shabby and colours look washed out.  Michelle Williams does a good job of playing Monroe though she may not have got all the mannerisms.  Monroe brings glamour into ’50s Britain as she arrives with her husband Arthur Miller.  For me, this film has too reverential a look at Monroe.  We get the usual misunderstood and vulnerable Marilyn, Elton John’s Candle in the Wind and all that.  I don’t think so, rather she was overrated and pampered.  She was the manufactured patron saint of the celebrity as martyr, which is actually astute when you don’t have any discernable talent: make a career out of your mental health.

Monroe’s acting relationship with Olivier is simplified to a conflict between classical theatrical acting and the aggressive ‘method’ acting fashionable in Hollywood at that time.  Her ‘method’ mentor, Paula Strasberg, is played with pike like predatoriness by Zoe Wanamaker, a jealous nurturer of the Marilyn myth and the feeder of preposterous delusions about Monroe’s ‘genius’.  Wanamaker plays her as a perfect wicked witch, her control mania seems to contribute to Monroe’s mentally harming isolation.  I think it’s foolish of the film to play up Olivier as an outdated actor who feels threatened by Monroe, when you consider he’s been a successful film star for the previous twenty years.  Indeed, twenty years later it was Dustin Hoffman who felt threatened by Olivier in Marathon Man!  Branagh plays Olivier with tight lipped camp twitchiness, one actor who played Henry V playing another actor who’d played Henry V.  He is increasingly outraged and baffled by Monroe’s prima donna habits.  The two fight for control over a spoilt celebrity who mocked their perfectionism.

Colin Clarke is well played by Eddie Redmayne as a smitten drip who pathetically basks in her reflected glory, unaware that the bestowal of such condescension can only diminish his own admittedly tenuous claims to individuality.  Speaking of this, it’s a moot point whether husband Arthur Miller felt diminished by Monroe or whether it was the other way round, their fame made them equals.  Colin is clearly the beneficiary of big league patronization.  If Monroe was a candle in the wind, then a film about her should be a welcome blast of rain, this well acted film just reverentially feeds the flame.

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Posted by on December 10, 2011 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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