Monthly Archives: January 2012

W. E.

W. E. posterSynopsis

A film partly written and directed by Madonna.  There are two stories in this, in 1998 a young woman called Wally (aptly) is obsessed by Wallis Simpson the American who got Edward VIII to abdicate and marry her.  The Wally of 1998 skulks around the museums exhibiting the 1930s Wally’s memorabilia, she buys her gloves at an auction.  Wally 1998’s husband is abusive and she ends up sleeping with the museum’s security guard.  Wally Simpson and Ed get together and he abdicates and can’t contact the new King Of England.  We don’t see them visit their pal Hitler.


This is a disgustingly dim witted film.  There are reminders of Single White Female where Jennifer Jason Leigh wanted to dress and look like Bridget Fonda, the 1998 Wally has a similarly creepy obsession with that 1930s gold digger Wallis Simpson, who is unlovable and lives for style and self.  Eddie does the royal thing and swans round a Welsh mining town playing the pompous monarch bestowing his gracious condescension on the unwashed yokels.  I think that The King’s Speech has a lot to answer for here, it’s turned people’s brains to jelly.  This egregious and comically archaic institution is not really about the Buck House people, it’s really a soap opera gig about Britishness and it’s a pretty smug and mindless one at that.  It’s fitting that Madonna, the supposed queen of style, is into the monarchy.  History for her is just a matter of fashion styles and photo ops..

Hilariously, the commentary goes on about the funeral of George the Third in 1936 when all the time I thought he died in 1820.  The Wally of 1998 has an abusive husband whom any self respecting woman would have ditched in a nanosecond, and there’s supposed to be some sort of parallel with Wally Simpson who was supposed to have given up everything for marriage to a King – diddums.  At times this film gets really weird, Wally Simpson hitches up her dress (in the 1930s) to dance to the Sex Pistols’ Pretty Vacant (1977).  Andrea Riseborough who plays W. Simpson and Abbie Cornish who plays the 1998 Wally must have been desperate to act in this turkey, which wouldn’t be worth writing about but for it’s being a symptom of our present malaise.

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Posted by on January 29, 2012 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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J. Edgar

J. Edgar posterSynopsis

Covers the history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s chief J. Edgar Hoover from early anti-Communist crusader to his control of the FBI from the ’30s to his death in 1972.  It sees his establishment of ideologically and personally acceptable personnel, of new crime hunting methods used in tracking down such people as Hauptmann, the alleged murderer of Lindbergh’s kidnapped child.  It looks at his supposed capture of gangsters and in the 60’s his attempted blackmailing of Martin Luther King.  It also looks at his manipulative role with the Kennedy family in the early ’60s.  It’s all told in flashbacks.  We see his relationship with his secretary (who rebuffs him as a possible marriage partner) and his gay friend Clyde Tolson.  We see his dominating mother and her influence on his life.


This is directed by Clint Eastwood who as a conservative Republican can’t be expected to be overly critical of that reactionary monster and he isn’t.  The  criticisms tend to be ineluctable because they are too obvious: Hoover was corrupted by absolute power which undermined the very ideals he claimed to be defending.  So that in the name of individual liberty he used blackmail, wire tapping, and other manic bureaucratic surveillance techniques, what a cosmic irony!  Eastwood’s film wants us to believe Hoover was a decent geek whose control freakery was at first the lovable quirk of an overly mother dominated young man.  He was determined to hunt down all perceived opponents of his conservative America, suffocating intellectual dissent in the process.  We are given hints of the Howard Hughes school of sociopathy by his loonily controlling mother, it’s a wonder he survives it (though he did put on her dress).  He seems to have lived in an antiseptic chamber of effete spite (bodily contact not welcome).  Eastwood’s criticism is gentle (eerily so), we learn that Hoover did not personally arrest gangsters, as if we believed otherwise!  His rule was unaccountable and his self righteous paranoia factored into a red neck witch hunting mentality.  Others were sacrificed to enhance his career: was there conclusive proof about Hauptmann’s guilt?  He nearly destroyed Martin Luther King by slander.  Anyone who crossed him he could threaten with impunity.  Leonardo di Caprio tries to convey understanding for his despicable actions but he only succeeds in making Hoover look pathetically deluded and isolated.

The use of prosthetics has been remarked on, how it makes the actors look in old age like plaster mummies.  It seems the technology of prosthetics in cinema is still not properly developed, the actors do look like they’ve been in a flour fight.  At times the film looks like a camcorder’s spying on a prosthetics party: very weird.  Prosthetics of course are not meant to be flattering if it shows older age (but it should convey natural aging), but the crudity of this art cannot do this.  Naomi Watts as Helen Candy looks frumpy, maybe she should sue Eastwood.  Armie Hammer plays Clyde Tolson, his initial demurrals against Hoover’s criminality succumb to his control.  The film says that Tolson’s gayness was not reciprocated, so it derives interest from a controversial relationship whilst keeping Hoover free of what makes it interesting.  One’s sympathy for Armie Hammer or Tolson is killed early on since they were willing cronies and only seemed to have eleventh hour attacks of conscience.  They were morally compromised drudges.

The film tries to take too much on.  It has to cover a career from the twenties to 1972, we see nothing of the ’40s and ’50s.  Hoover’s career should have been covered by two or three films.  The only satisfactory voice in the film is that of fellow rogue Richard Nixon who dismisses Hoover as a creep.  Like The Iron Lady it’s told in flashbacks about an unlovable right wing figure.


This gets me onto the two biopics.  The Iron Lady and J. Edgar and their flashbacks through the prosthetics department.  We seem to be witnessing the cosy domestication of right wing thugs and since we’ve been suffering right wing political thuggery since the 1980’s, I suppose it’s hardly surprising.  Why not make a cosy biopic about Al Capone?  We could see him in old age (we can slap on a lot of white make up even though he was only 47 when he died), and he can tell his lovable story in flashbacks.  Forget the misunderstandings about the occasional killing, after all he was a misunderstood family man and a well meaning businessman.  Don’t pay any attention to that nasty Eliot Ness who was only envious anyway.  We could get Robert de Niro to bring a tear to our eyes as he plays good old Al singing Italian ballads.

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Posted by on January 28, 2012 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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The Artist

The Artist posterSynopsis

A silent film in black and white about a silent movie star.  It’s 1927 and George Valentin is a big star and so is his pet dog.  Peppy Miller is a young hopeful who gets his attention and he mentors her to stardom.  She gets roles in the new ‘talkies’ and by 1927 she has become a star and he has become a ‘has been’.  He gets depressed and Peppy helps him but at first he’s too proud.  She gets him a role in one of her films and they are a dancing partnership…


A marvellous film about the silent movies, the end of the silent movies and the transition to talkies.  It’s all done in black and white and in what we now call subtitles but were then more like very compressed written summaries, it all works so that it makes us realise the gains and losses in technologically determined film fashions.  The black and whites actually seem denser to me than colour, I get a sense of boundaries and textures of things better than I do in colour.  I think it must be the shade changes, and I can guess the colour anyway.  Then there’s the absence of heard dialogue with only a musical background, this is initially quite funny as if it’s just a gimmick but it made me wonder about the seemingly baffling phenomenon of reluctance enthusiastically to adopt sound in 1929.  Peppy Miller, in her climb to stardom, cruelly dismisses the silent movies as actors mugging before the camera, but when there is no heard dialogue then obviously body language becomes really important.  Perhaps there was a feeling in 1920s cinema audiences that body language and interaction with scene details were more fascinating than listening to somebody who might sound like your bank manager or anything else banal from everyday conversation.  You read the dialogue notes and filled in the rest with your unaided imagination, you could guess at the tones and textures in the dialogue.  After all, up to the talkies cinema audiences had been used used to reading novels in silence and they provided their own sound of a voice.  D. W. Griffiths himself said that he made films like Dickens made novels, perhaps the fact that he was a master of silent movies gave added emphasis to this observation.  Not hearing actors might endow them with more mystique than real life could give them.  Silence in the talking movies is all about interval or absence, whereas in the silent films it’s a deepening of visual mood and a constant opportunity for viewers to listen to their own minds.  This reminds me of that scene in Singing in the Rain (the 1952 musical set in the transition to the talkies) where a Jean Harlow type star is exposed as having a ludicrously inappropriate whining voice, this being effectively a career killer.  This brings us to the other film references in The Artist: Peppy (like Garbo) says she wants to be alone, the name Valentin is of course an obvious allusion to the silent star Rudolph Valentino, Miller is discovered like Fay Ray in “King Kong, Valentin and his dog are like something from Charlie Chaplin, there is the shadow independent of its maker like that mirror scene in the Marx Brothers, there’s the scene where Peppy is feeling and smelling Valentin’s jacket and she puts her arm in his jacket and mimes an embrace.  This made me think of All about Eve where Anne Baxter is the wannabe film star who goes through Bette Davis’ wardrobe.  Another film is Sunset Boulevard where silent star Gloria Swanson spookily re-enacts her glory days in that 1951 film.  The Keystone type cop rescues Valentin from his attempted suicide (something which silent stars had recourse to).  There are reminders of the 1920s with references to the Depression, the optimism and vitality of the 20’s leading to the gloom of the 30’s.  We briefly see a Cagney gangster movie so we think of Capone and the bootleggers..

We want Peppy to save Valentin and we want him to thrive in the new era.   He looks like a cross between Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks, even grimacing like they do, with that ridiculous pencil moustache.  It’s a magnificently cheering and inventive film.

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Posted by on January 24, 2012 in At the cinema, Film Reviews, Oscar Nominated


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Shame posterSynopsis

Starring Michael Fassbender as Brandon a high flying careerist in New York who is obsessed with sex.  He keeps porn on his laptop and has sex with prostitutes.  He gazes at a woman on the tube train.  His needy sister Sissy visits him and gets off with his boss.  She is a singer with hopes of making it in New York.  Brandon has a date with a colleague but they can’t have sex.  He gets himself beaten up and tries gay sex.  Brandon falls out with his sister as he thinks she is queering his pitch and she tries to kill herself.


This stars Michael Fassbender who played Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen’s film about the hunger striker, and we wonder if he is ready for another ordeal.  Brandon is so cut off from emotional commitment it’s apt that he lives in a coldly stylish apartment.  Steve McQueen’s camera work has been remarked on, how he holds the camera for a prolonged shot.  The actors of course don’t have a hair out of place whilst the camera is on them and this hilariously reminded me of that Monty Python sketch where John Cleese as a TV presenter sits on the top deck of a bus and the camera relentlessly stays on him so that he eventually snivels his personal problems.  No such luck here, these people are too cool and it reminds us that camera angles in most films are too flattering and short lived to put actors through any ordeal.  Carey Mullligan has the camera on her for five minutes in her slowed down rendition of New York New York.  With this she can pierce Brandon’s cynical armour.  Brandon’s on the metro where he predatorily gazes at a women who goes through the body language range from flattered interest to sudden revulsion.  Brandon is dedicated to the temple of his own fastidious and erotomaniacal body.  He is clean and neat and insists on total control, one suspects that he is a self loathing puritan disgusted with sex so that his predatoriness is a form of self punishment.  He is snobbishly incapable of commitment and love.  When he chats with his colleague Marianne, her interest in emotional commitment is not reciprocated, he thinks of people in terms of how they can satisfy him.  There isn’t much humanity in him, he is enraged by his sister’s need for warmth and support, he resents any demands on an empathy or sympathy which he knows he is incapable of.  He is a voyeuristic caricature of those aspects of ourselves we would rather not admit to.  He makes a futile gesture to self improvement by trashing his porn collection (his boss cleaned his computer).  Brandon is prudishly hypocritical as he gets angry with his sister for getting off with his boss.  He goes on a cleansing jog through night time New York, maybe to work off his self hatred.

The title of the film is Shame and one wonders if the shame is self awareness of his own worthlessness, a lament for his lost humanity.  When he rushes in to his apartment to stop his sister killing herself, I was reminded of that scene in The Apartment from fifty years ago, also set in New York.  Jack Lemmon stops Shirley McClaine trying to kill herself after all along showing her far more friendliness than Brandon will ever be capable of.  Lemmon’s film had a happy ending but I haven’t much hope for Brandon.


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Posted by on January 22, 2012 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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War Horse

War Horse posterSynopsis

A Devon farmer Ted (Peter Mullan) competes with landlord David Thewlis to buy a thoroughbred horse “Joey” for a price he can’t afford.  His son Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) ploughs a field with Joey to justify the expense of the animal.  Albert’s mother Rose is played by Emily Watson.  Ted sells the horse to the army in 1914 so it belongs to Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston).  He is killed and the horse is taken by two young German brothers who are caught trying to desert. Joey is then owned by a French farmer and his granddaughter.  Later Joey is used as an army workhorse by the Germans, and the horse escapes and runs through no-mans land and is caught in barbed wire and rescued by a British and German soldier.  It might be reunited with Albert…..


This is Spielberg at his corniest and most manipulative.  The music is by John Williams and it forces you to reach for the paper hankies.  In the original Michael Morpurgo story the horse can talk (which reminds me of that comedy about “Mr Ed” the talking horse) and clearly that was not for this film, although the animal is pretty humanized.  We’re presented with the spectacle of a horse causing more sadness than the piles of human corpses around it!  Films with horses in them illustrate the point that sentimentality and violence are two sides of the same coin, in films riders either slobberingly adore them or treat them badly.  The film critic Dilys Powell always used to worry about the treatment of horses in films.  This film follows in the tradition of all those films which show an impossibly unrealistic Britain and of course horses are sentimentalized.  Warhorse is scripted by Richard Curtis who continues the Disney tradition of selling England to the American market.  This is a Postman Pat world of saintly women and obsequious yokels.  I thought of John Ford’s film set in Ireland and I wouldn’t have been surprised if some John Wayne clone had come shambling onto the set wearing a cloth cap and having a terrible Irish accent.  There is little room here for the horse as a metaphor of vital forces like in Equus, if given that Jungian treatment it would have spoiled the innocence of Albert’s love for the horse.  The Devon landscape is made to look impossibly breathtaking and we have a Hollywood sunset at the end.  The ploughing of the field clearly has symbolic meaning, as the plough is meant to contrast with the swords which are held over the hapless horses by the cavalry.  Emma Watson plays the usual tough but gentle mother who tolerates the idiocies of men and frets about the rent.  Jeremy Irvine as Albert looks far too ‘boy band’.  His father Ted is drunk and clearly in need of a self esteem course and gets it through his ownership of the horse.  David Thewlis plays the landlord who clearly needs to ditch his Scrooge image.  The French grandfather and child live on a windmilled farm and they look like they’re ready to pose for a field full of oil painters.

The treatment of the First World War never gets beyond sentimental stereotypes.  Benedict Cumberbatch and the other cavalry officers are shown as brave but stupid.  The German soldiers admonish them for their peacock archaism but the Germans also had cavalry.  The German and British soldiers are sympathetically depicted as victims of the war that kills everything.  When a British soldier and a German soldier wire cut the horse from the barbed wire in no-man’s land we’re back to the Christmas truce of 1914 and the sentimental “we’re all human beings under our uniforms” schtick that we have heard since film makers decided to be kind to our German NATO allies back in the ’50s.  All Quiet on the Western Front was an early creditable attempt to criticize the cruelty and waste of war (made in 1930), but in War Horse we get the usual woodenly uneasy references to the humanity all combatants need to recover.  I think it would be fascinating to see a film about why the greatest philosopher of the 20th century (Wittgenstein) joined the Austro-Hungarian army to fight the Russians and Italians.  How could he do it when that other great philosopher, Bertram Russell, refused?

Good for the heart but the brain is never engaged.

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Posted by on January 16, 2012 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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The Iron Lady

The Iron Lady posterSynopsis

The story of Margaret Thatcher told in flashbacks from her old age, it covers her political life from becoming an MP to her ousting as leader of the Tory party.  We get the Falklands War, the miners’ strike and her rule over her cabinet ministers in the 1980s.


There’s been a fair amount of debate about showing Thatcher in her dotage.  I found it a bit excruciating but now I tend to think that though it’s cruel, it’s showing someone in all their human frailty as well as in their prime.  I think it is a portrait rather than a biopic.  A portrait is a series of views on someone, a biopic follows a trajectory guided by historical narrative.  The Iron Lady simply shows an often flawed politician in self isolating mode.  The film shows our current obsession with the ’40s and ’50s and of course the characters have their familiarly allotted roles: patrician Tory, plucky schoolgirl, solid chaps wearing terrible glasses.  Streep comes in as the aspiring Tory politician and her mimicry of Thatcher is perfect, she has the rigid self control, the anal provincial Tory turning into a hectoring school governess.  We see her polishing her image like George in The Kings Speech, which must have been a bit like Streep’s preparation for the role.

I loathed her politics: the deregulation of finance, the assault on the unions, the use of the Metropolitan police against the miners, the undermining of British industry, the jingoism of the Falklands war and her self pity when removed from power.  Streep does a good job of showing the rigidity of purpose that lead to her fall over the poll tax and Europe.  The film could have exploited the sexist war she had to fight but it doesn’t really succumb to that dramatically irresistible option, after all, she was no feminist and she preferred men.  One feels sympathy for the plight of an elderly woman but I do detest what she did.  I think the film avoids engaging in political argument, instead it settles for statesmanlike poses and rhetoric dressed in Tory finery.  She is given an interesting swipe at our therapy culture when she says that people should be asked what they think rather than about how they feel.  Dennis Thatcher plays the role of the humorous ghost providing comic relief.

As a portrait it’s a good job but the political arguments remain to be dealt with in other films, and I’m sure they will be.  The film did dwell too much on the dementia.

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Posted by on January 9, 2012 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn

Tintin posterSynopsis

About Tintin’s search for treasure.  The clue to this treasure is a map found in a bottle.  The pursuit of the treasure leads to a ship voyage where Tintin meets Captain Haddock.  They escape from the ship and fly to Morocco and track down the clues to the treasure there.


This is Spielberg’s version of Herge’s Tintin.  This style of animation, like that of Polar Express is neither real nor caricature fantasy, so it falls between the two.  The characters look like they’ve got stockings pulled over their faces.  The whole look of the film is Spielberg. The chase scene in Morocco is reminiscent of Indiana Jones.  It’s set at an electric pace, no time for a pause which might make you think of the creepiness of those faces.  Purists hate this of course, but I found it entertaining.  I suppose we are all purists about something (I hated the way the BBC rejected the Gothic appearance of Gormangast).  I suppose other purists’ anger is always baffling or amusing,  What’s the fuss about Tintin?  As far as I’m concerned he is a funny little racist (check out Tintin in the Congo), with a funny hairdo, golfing trousers, an irritating dog, and no girlfriends.  The culture of comics and comic books leave me cold.  To me, all the Tintin comics might be well drawn and exciting for kids but why such reverence for this kind of art?  You’d think Spielberg had desecrated the Sistine Chapel!  In the comics the individual scenes provide a backdrop in which things happen suddenly in different pictures, perhaps this was revolutionary at first, so I suspect that Tintin purists feel that cinema betrays this, but it’s understood that cinematic art works differently.  Spielberg seems to do his best to hold true to the spirit of the originals.  Of course the world of Spielberg and the 1930s world of Herge are very different but so what?  Herge himself had nothing against Tintin in cinema in the mid twentieth century.  Was Herge’s world superior?  In any case, each reader of Tintin took what they wanted from it, so Spielberg has the right to his personal vision.   Admittedly, the film works too much within present day orthodoxies but the characters seem pretty faithful to the comics.  Haddock is comically irascible in the film as in the comic, and you want the drunken clown to come out right.  Tintin is a reliable hero even if he does look like an escapee from a freak show.  We get the opera singer Castefiore and that mutt Smutty.

As a purist I eventually accepted that the directors vision of Gormengast was his own even if I didn’t like it, so why can’t Tintin purists join in the fun?


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