Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games posterSynopsis

Set in a dystopian future, “Panem” (“Bread” as in the Roman “Bread and Circuses”) is run by an effete oligarchy who run a ruthless tribute state.  They rule over 12 districts kept in a state of 19th century industrialism.  Each district must provide two people in a “reaping” to appease Panem’s rulers.  Once selected the two will be submitted for a televised gladiatorial contest, twentyfour of them will fight it out to the death and there can only be one winner.  The contestants will be monitored by surrounding hi-tech.  Before being sent to the killing ground, the two district 12 contestants (starring Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen and Josh Hutcherson as Peta Mellark) are feasted and given celebrity treatment by Stanley Tucci as the TV prima donna.   Katniss Everdeen gets into the arena and there is a twist at the end.


This is very entertaining but also highly derivative.  The sci-fi influences are many: 1984Logan’s RunThe Island of Dr Moreau, The Handmaid’s Tale,  Rollerball, West World, Lost, Lord of the Flies, Steven King’s Running Man, reality TV The X Factor and I’m a Celebrity Get me out of here.  Critics have talked about this being a satire on reality TV, but one should remember that some sixty or seventy years ago sci-fi predicted the gladitorialization and ritual  humiliation contestants on celebrity wannnabee TV, so this film has come full circle on that prediction by giving it an opportunistic relevance for teen audiences inured to the humiliating idiocies of Britain’s Got Talent.  The stylized broadcast hunt is then an old story in sci-fi, this film adds 21st century hi-tech to it.  The authoritarian control of resources with the consequent impoverishment of subject peoples living in industrial and craft serfdom is familiar from such as 1984, The Handmaids Tale, and Zardoz.  The juxtaposition of decadent, jaded, ruling classes surrounded by primitivized  resentments is pretty well worn, but it works to a degree in this film.  The ruling classes are dressed like 1980s New Romantics in a mixture of Blade Runner post modernist stylistic absurdities parading in some Roman court presided over by Nero or Elagabalus.  This closely replicates Zardoz and reminds me of that Joni Mitchall song from 1985 about the parasitism of the privileged on poorer people, they will resort to artifice (hi-tech games), brutality (killing), and innocence (the exploitability of vitality all for vicarious gratification).  Woody Harrelson is amusingly cynical as their contestants’ mentor and is an ex-winner.  Jennifer Lawrence hones her hunting skills as she did in Winters Bone.  Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones send up the likes of Simon Cowell smarmily ready to set up victims for the mob’s amusement.  Donald Sutherland is the big boss reminding the games organizer that sentiment towards subject people is unmerited, their exploitation must continue.

The Hunger Games is from a teen book, so might we get another teen franchise?  I hope not.  Some of the contestants are a-moral, and all are competents.  Their self conscious petulance betray an ambivalence that militates against the genuine cruelty in Lord of the Flies.  They are too readily the puppets of Panem, and plot wise this doesn’t convince.  Why don’t they turn on their masters if they have nothing to lose?  The story itself seems more overly contrived set pieces than a convincing tale about what would happen in this dystopia.  Anyway, it’s all good fun.


Posted by on March 27, 2012 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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The Raven

The Raven posterSynopsis

Starring John Cusack as Edgar Allen Poe in the last year of his life in 1849.  Poe is called upon to help solve crimes which use ideas from his stories: the pendulum, the nailed down window, his fiancee abducted from a bathroom like Masque of the Red Death, and she is buried alive like in The Fall of the House of Ussher.  The serial killer is obviously playing cat and mouse with Poe who has to overcome the one step behind deficit.  He works with the chief inspector, Emmet Fields, played by Luke Evans.  Poe is trying to marry Emily (Alice Eve)  but he must first win over her father played by Brendan Gleeson.  Will he rescue his fiancee in time?


In a recent article, I read that Poe was a hack who wrote sensationalist stuff for a sensation hungry public.  His claims to literary merit were unfounded, and his poems were comic book Coleridge.  He did become a big hit with the French symbolists.  A few Hammer films used his stories and he could be fun.  The idea of his being a detective using his own stories is a good one and it’s surprising it hasn’t been done before.  Cusack is enjoyably hammy as the boozy hell raiser who does what all rebellious writers have to do, upset the respectable classes.  Cusack never gets into anything nuanced but it is a likeable performance, and given the Tim Burton type gloominess, Jonny Depp could have played this role.  Poe lives in a world of dark streets and austere studies, the film looks like an unfolding Moroccan bound volume of dramatic prints like set pieces for daguerrotype.  It aspires to be the detective story that Poe should have written but didn’t.  The acting in general is melodramatic, there’s lots of shouting and flouncing around in funereal settings.  Poe and the chief detective have a respectful but uneasy relationship, the prototype of the detective calling on the help that they initially despise.  There is an enthusiastic eye for detail in the old wood and wrought iron of the workshops and bars.  The film moves along at a great pace and it’s easy with Victorian eccentricities.  I wonder if it’s intentional in its appearance of being a Corman film, Roger Corman was a Poe enthusiast in the horror fantasies of the ’60s.  It does seem to be a tribute to him and Hammer films.  Quite enjoyable.

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Posted by on March 24, 2012 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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Bel Ami

Bel Ami posterSynopsis

Set in the belle epoque of the Third Republic in the Paris of 1890.  Starring Robert Pattinson as Georges Duroy, an impoverished  ex-soldier who’s helped out by another soldier (Philip Glenister as Charles Forestier).  They go back to Algeria in the 1880s.   Forestier introduces Duroy to his wife, played by Uma Thurman as Madeleine, and she helps him achieve a reputation as a writer of essays.  Duroy then seduces Clotilde (Christine Ricci) and  Madame Rousset (Kristen Scott Thomas).  Duroy marries Madeleine after he and Madeleine accompany her husband dying of consumption.  Madeleine has a lover, Duroy and she divorce.  There are scandals about government ministers and the invasion of Morocco.  Duroy might marry the daughter of his enemy, Rousset, played by (Colm Meany).


This is from a novel by Guy de Maupassant, I had to read him for French A level.  Maupassant wrote about peasants (often from Normandy) and how their lives of miserable poverty made them embittered, hardened, and mean minded survivors.  Duroy is no exception, he starts out as an impoverished gold digger and he’s quite ruthless about using sex as a means to power and money.  This is no morality tale about a wicked opportunist getting his comeuppance, he succeeds in his ambition for wealth and status.  His father lives in poverty and daily prays for paradise in this world, Duroy will not be such a martyr to delayed gratification, he has no illusions about what money and power do to people.

In the world of politics and culture Duroy is initially out of his depth and gets by through seducing the right woman.  The starchy suited masculine world of 1890s Paris is really run by clever women, Duroy is never in control of events, not even of his private life.  He is jealous and insecure and in his behaviour with fellow capitalists he is like a well varnished cockroach in an elegant jar with other cockroaches.  The fascination comes with seeing how he will fall from money and influence.  The film looks a little like costume drama TV episodes compressed into one film.  The acting can be pretty wooden, Thurman seems hilariously incapable of acting angry.  Kristin Scott Thomas is her usual dewy eyed, tightly buttoned vulnerability.  Pattinson himself seems all groomed surface with nothing much behind it.  The men are vile and the women are confined to the usual role of tempter, seduced respectability, hard headed manipulator, or bored wife.  Nice to look at but not too great to listen to.

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Posted by on March 23, 2012 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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We Bought a Zoo

We Bought a Zoo posterSynopsis

Based on Guardian journalist’s real life purchase of a zoo in Dartmoor and what happens to it.  Matt Damon plays Benjamin Mee.  His wife has died and his son is in a state of grief.  His daughter is enthusiastic about him buying a house in the country and the small zoo that goes with it.  Their workers are Scarlett Johannssen, a feisty Scott (Angus MacFadyren), a teenage girl with a crush on the son and other willing helpers.  Tangled with issues of bereavement there is an ageing tiger.  There are bureaucrats, money problems and a storm threatens opening day………


This is a sentimental film, now set in California, in which everybody comes through emotional ordeals all the stronger.  They have to, this is a mainstream film.  Animals on film over the last half century or so, from Born Free (about a lioness) to zoo programmes, Tarzan and so on, have all shown a Disneyland view of animals.  Their activities are circumscribed by the requirements of sentiment, this film is not an exception.  A dying tiger becomes a sort of cathartic symbol of Damon’s grief management.  Other animals look like cute pets as their lives are controlled by culturally correct self-delusion, one is no longer allowed to call a cage ‘a cage’, but an enclosure.  A change of words doesn’t change the reality for the captive animal.  Bereavement is worked out by the usual guilt and remorse routine as the zoo itself becomes a sort of school of self therapy.  We are not shown the realities of looking after animals in a zoo, in this sanitized place there’s hardly a hint of bodily functions.  Those of us who’ve looked after an old pet know all about that stink and mess.  Scarlett Johannssen would get whisked off to the big city pretty quick and we get no insight into her chosen way of life, she is just a good egg who has a way with animals and who of course will straighten Damon emotionally.  It’s all very treacly and predictable.  We get the anti-bureaucratic feisty Scot and the sleazy bureaucrat who should be given their own compound labelled ‘lovable stereotypes’.  In order to avoid embarrassing lapses into what could look like goofy family camcorder shots, we get zingy pop songs which don’t have any obvious reference to what’s on the screen and we get relentless action like those quick fire adverts as if to avoid lingering lachrymosity.  Sentiment is frogmarched off between the toolbox and getting the job done.  There is a sort of nod to Noah’s Ark, as a storm threatens to maroon the zoo, then the sun comes out and everything is okay.  Undemanding but likeable.


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In Darkness

In Darkness posterSynopsis

Set in Lvov in 1943-44 about a Polish sewer worker, Leopold Sacha ( played by Robert Wieckiewicz), who hides Jewish people in the underground sewers but at first does it for pay.  The Ukrainian militia work for the Nazis and are paid to betray Jews to the Nazis and one of them wants Sacha’s help in tracking them down.  Sacha is forced to kill a German soldier and we see the grim consequences of German revenge.  We catch a glimpse of everyday life in an appalling reality.  Do the Jewish People survive the war?


This is all the more commendable for lacking the unctuousness that western films always seem to succumb to.  Furthermore, in films about the persecution of the Jews we usually get feisty arguments and shifty self conscious attitudinizings as if the depiction of ordinary humanity will remove any doubts about the advisability of artistic coverage of such horror.  There is always the search for the ‘Good German’ (see The Piano Player), it seems the sentimental imperative of commercial cinema cannot bear too much of this reality so the resort to cosy stereotypes can be urgent.  In Darkness does resort to the usual dramatic device of accentuating the goodness of the helper-turned-hero by dwelling on his initial reluctance.  There is a too much protesting about the earthy cynicism and ordinariness of a man we know will find his heroic self.   The other Poles, his wife and friend, are shown as decent folk simply intent on survival.  They play a battle of wits with the occupying  Germans whose walk-on parts are restricted to the usual pointless act of savagery.  These are not the more supposedly humane Germans of ‘Resistance’.

The life in the sewers is of course revoltingly horrifying and the people trapped there are simply trying to stay sane:  all simple acts of survival become intensely dramatic.  The weather in this film is mostly gloomy, the fetid darkness and squalor makes the whole place look like a run down rat maze as if it could be easily caught in a animated works’ charcoal drawings.  The acts of kindness are handled unselfconsciously with very little awkward sentiment.  Very gripping.

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Posted by on March 20, 2012 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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Rampart posterSynopsis

Starring Woody Harrelson as Dave Brown, a cop in Los Angeles in the 90s.  He is bossy and brutal.  He is caught on film beating up someone who accidentally crashes into his car.  Harrelson is under investigation and rejects advice to take retirement.  He is corruptedly involved in a robbery and killing after being helped by an elderly mentor.  He has two divorced wives, who are sisters.  He has an affair with a woman he thinks may be setting him up.


Written by James Ellroy this is a better film to listen to than watch.  You might think that police corruption and brutality are pretty well worn stories, but this film adds new details.  Harrelson is very articulate and is not browbeaten by white collar advice.  He can state his case with eloquence which is in ironic contrast to the brutality he so readily resorts to when attacking suspects.  Furthermore Harrelson’s domestic set up is interestingly almost ‘bohemian’.  His kids are arty and not afraid to talk back, one calls him “Date Rape”.  We see no actual violence inflicted on his family, and one wonders if the violence is channelled into work so saving his home life from it.  At work he insists on the prerogatives of the authoritarian bully, that menacing pedantry that will have its way even if not actually backed up by force.  A fellow police officer can’t eat her chips, he insists she finish them and she complies.  His sexual encounters turn from the predatory to self loathing as he descends into a hell awaiting well deserved retribution.  He doesn’t know how he can achieve self redemption which is all the more fascinating, given his eloquence one would have thought some kind of curative self analysis wouldn’t be impossible.  He seems transfixed by a self pity that can turn vindictive.  He is a study in isolated guilt.  This is an obsessive’s Los Angeles, rather like in that night time film set in LA in which Tom Cruise plays a killer, you don’t see much of the normal routines.  The camera sways up close and doesn’t retreat much.  We see tour bus sights of Los Angeles, all gleaming affluent gated retreats which are a facade for all kinds of moral let down and criminality, and then square miles of streets of neglected anonymity waiting to be predatorily pin pointed by the cruising police man in his car.  He usually wears black mantis shades entitling him to their secretive vantage points.  Harrelson became famous as the country bumpkin in Cheers and I couldn’t stop thinking about that.  His face is like a hunk of glazed ham that’s been squashed in a vice.  His chin looks like an offensive weapon as his beady manic eyes laser on his victim.  Sigourney Weaver plays his boss who suggests retirement, all effortless cynicism.  The other women play the familiar role of the patiently suffering guardians of sanity, though you wonder why such intelligent women could ever have had anything to do with such a nasty guy.

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Posted by on March 17, 2012 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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Wanderlust posterSynopsis

Starring Jennifer Aniston as Linda and Paul Rudd as George.  They are a yuppy couple in New York, she sells bad advertising ideas, and he works for a company who have just sacked him.  George decides to go to Atlanta to work for his brother Rick. On the way they come across a hippy ‘commune’ like a more benign version of the one in the recent Martha film.  The leaders of the group are Alan Alda, as an elderly ‘hippy’, and Justin Theroux who plays Seth, it’s the same role played by John Hawkes in the Martha film.  These people are naturists and other types of ‘new agers’.  Then George and Aniston go to his brother’s hideous house of affluent squalor, the couple reject it and return to the ‘commune’.  Then George wants to sell out the commune to land developers, but does he get his come-uppance?  Maybe everybody lives happily ever after……


Considering Jennifer Aniston is in this film, it’s surprisingly funny.  The jokes are bawdy and the timing is pretty good.  Faced with the prospect of ‘free love’ with a sexy blonde, hippy George goes through would-be erotic provocations in the mirror, it should be embarrassing but is mildly funny.  Judd Apatow is into this kind of humour in his other movies.  This view of ‘hippies’ as comic relief is a welcome change from the Charles Manson psycho brigade.  Wanderlust works effectively as satire on those cringe making sixties and seventies cults that incited the freedom to be unembarrassed by obsessive compulsive fetishes.  These people don’t clap, instead they rub their fingers together.  Their supposed challenge to the social conventions represented by Aniston and George are of course an alternative orthodoxy of enforced quirkiness, all expressed with that breathy sincerity which Americans can turn into real comedy.  The bearded young leader Seth is the usual macho threat behind the mask of new age pomposity, he transcends mere smugness.

Wanderlust like other movies of its kind, squanders the opportunity to subvert our everyday values, rather in making the hippies look sanctimonious it endorses the values of middle class materialism since these are at least honest.  There are a couple of hilarious scenes in which Aniston and Rudd hallucinate conversations with a fly and people get all Dali-distorted.  There is a nudist who aspires to write the great novel, and of course this Woody Allen type nerd must have a happy ending.  My generation watched Alan Alda playing liberal decency in the TV series MASH, he played the Catch 22 type hero hating the brutality of war.  Ever since, Alda has played the avuncular liberal house pet, always to be relied on for being sentimentally right on.  In Wonderlust he keeps reminiscing about the commune which he set up in 1971, and he is of course decent, the pleading motor-mouth asking you to take him on face value.  He’s not funny, though he tries hard to be.

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


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