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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.

Criticism

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.

 
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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?

Criticism

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).

Criticism

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………

Criticism

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?

Criticism

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

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.

Criticism

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

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……

Criticism

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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John Carter

John Carter posterSynopsis

Based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Princess of Mars, it stars Taylor Kitsch as John Carter, a confederate cavalryman who has suffered family loss and then gets into conflict with the Apache in 1881.  He finds a spider amulet that takes him instantly to Mars or (‘Bharsoom’).  There he can exploit its lower gravity so he can jump high.  He meets with Tharks, an alien species involved in a struggle with shape shifting Mark Strong and Dominic West.  There is a princess of Helium who is under attack from West and Strong.  Ciaran Hinds and James Purefoy also uphold the forces of good.  Carter has to fight white apes in the arena and helps save Helium against the baddies.  The young Edgar Rice Burroughs inherits Carter’s story along with his estate…..

Criticism

The critics have gathered to pan this film and one ought to sympathize.  The star, aptly named Taylor Kitsch (sic), is laughably wooden and so is the Princess of Mars, and so are the other big name British actors who ponderously try to out do Brian Blessed’s hamminess in Flash Gordon.  Calling the city Helium is asking for trouble, one thinks of squeaky voices.  In this film, Mars has two large moons whereas Phobos and Deimos are asteroid size.  Visually, the film shows obvious debts to Mad Max, Stargate, Star Wars, and Avatar.  The space ships are the usual Dan Dare legoized computer games.  For all their alien appearance, the Tharks show human expressions and so do not go beyond the usual anthropomorphism of popular  sci-fi.  The Tharks look like anorexic turtles with tusk problems, and they are built like basket ball players with four arms.  There is the usual predictable noble savage sentimentality of their referring to humans as ugly, so we’re in danger of getting into Dances with Wolves or rather “Dances with Turtles”.  However, after acknowledging all that, I do not concur with the critics about the film being overlong and tedious, I enjoyed it, largely because of the Tharks.  There is an obvious debt to the aliens in Avatar and there are hints of a better film in the details of Thark life:  for instance in the way the small Tharks are hatched and taken in (reminders here of Enemy Mine).  If the film could get away from humanizing aliens then we could get more imaginative sci-fi.  The desert landscapes are shot in Utah, all  toffee coloured rocks in marvellous desert landscapes.  Furthermore, for all the bad acting it was fun, like watching a hi-tech She, all Saturday morning matinee thrills.  This is where I part company from the critical consensus, its very faults are what makes it likeable.  This is after all written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the author of Tarzan.  What do you expect, intelligent dialogue?  It’s comic book material, so it’s silly fun.  Expecting more would be like expecting Desperate Dan or Dennis the Menace to give us insight into life (though some pompous film critics make those very claims for other comic book japes).  This is Beano or Beezer with rayguns and it’s a good larf, so I like it and no, it doesn’t go on too long.  The critics are wrong.

 
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Posted by on March 15, 2012 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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A Dangerous Method

A Dangerous Method posterSynopsis

Starring Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung, Viggo Mortensen as Freud, and Keira Knightley as Sabina Spielrein (a Russian patient).  Set in about 1900 in Switzerland and Vienna it concerns Jung’s relationship with Spielrein, it develops into love which must be stopped owing to his bourgeoise responsibilities to his wife and family.  Speilrein becomes a doctor in her own right.  We see the rift between Freud and Jung.

Criticism

Directed by David Cronenberg and written by Christopher Hampton, it’s about what’s supposed to be one of the great partnerships in history.  Mortensen plays Freud as the cautious smooth cultic figure whose authority must not be contested.  According to the film, Freud is a prophet who could tolerate only accomplices or disciples, any rival could become an enemy.  Jung is portrayed as the independent-minded colleague who becomes the great challenger.  Freud is committed to materialism and science, and Jung seems to be going off onto a mystical tangent.  In one scene Jung seems to have precognition about noises on the bookshelf, Freud is the urbane debunker, the imperturbable patriarch.  The film shows a very patriarchal view of well controlled family life.  The challenges to bourgeoise constraints were the constant threat of uninhibited sex, which broke out with sado-masochistic passion between Jung and Spielrein.  The eroticism is exacerbated by the hypocrisy and proprieties among the spotless decor.  The only other concession to sensuality amongst the starchiness of the Calvinist linen is all the smoking going on:  Freud’s cigar, Jung’s meditative pipe, and Vincent Cassel’s roll ups.  Cassel here plays the pantomime pseudo bohemian cad and perfectionist of style.  Dialogue between these guys is the effortless articulacy of the well massaged academic ego.  When Jung talks about mysticism you can see him nettling the self assured Freud whose own claims for the pseudo-scientific psychoanalysis he invented now look very dated.  In the mid 20th century I read books that bowed to Freud’s authority, now he needn’t detain us too much except as a figure of obvious cultural significance.  Jung is the rebellious son who casts off Freud’s biblical authority.  It’s all done with gentlemanly restraint, you can see the effort at self control like a hint of turmoil in a flick of oil in a painting.  These guys hold onto their authority in a Europe about to be steeped in world war, and of course Jung has to have premonitions about this, after all he is the grandfather of twentieth century cults, a shamon in a stiff suit.  Keira Knightley as Spielrein is all actorish gurning as she is driven into the sanatorium and she jumps through the hoops of an actor pretending to be mad but actually just being unconvincingly histrionic.  Later in the film she becomes a more sympathetic character.  The film is quite absorbing.

 
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Posted by on March 7, 2012 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene posterSynopsis

About a young woman Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), who escapes from a ‘commune’ in the Catskills run by a would-be charismatic psycho and Charles Manson lookalike (John Hawkes).  Olsen finds her sister who lives with her English boyfriend who are at first welcoming but become alienated by her eccentric behaviour and ‘hippyish’ questioning of their materialistic values.  We see the life in the ‘commune’ in flashbacks, how the women are abused Manson style.  Does the cult find her and what do they do….?

Criticism

In American culture there has often been an Emersonian urge to activate the rustic life away from the big cities.  Then there are the religious groups such as the Amish and the Mormons.  In the post-apocalypse novel The Pesthouse the hero meets a community of a strange religious cult.  In apocalyptic films we see the hero trundling a supermarket trolley through wastelands and I half expected the people in this film to do the same.  Then there is the film The Village about a community of people living in a state of cowed conformism away from the modern age.  I expected an interesting solution to the seeming mystery of this tiny village of dropouts but nothing turned up.  What we get is a psychotic bully ruling in cultic fashion over a group of brainwashed sex slaves, victimized like Sharon Tate.  As for Olsen, Nick Cohen has written about the seemingly rebellious middle class girl who ends up becoming enslaved to people even worse than their parents.  Her sister is blissfully guilt free about her affluent and privileged life when she and her boyfriend see a threat from Olsen’s idealistic and unworldly eccentricity, they are ragingly self justifying.  They expect her to conform and find a job, dreamy parasitism is not an option for Olsen.  The camera swings wildly in close up, I was expecting the character to sprout Terence Malick inspired poetry and wisdom.  This sort of camera trickery does have you wondering when and where the next crisis, accident or tragedy will happen.  People’s faces are caught out in varying degrees of distraction or defensive tightening and then the camera will veer away as if recoiling.  It leaves you feeling uneasy and unwillingly drawn into an emotion at tipping point.

Perhaps this film has pretensions to being a moral fable about the arbitrariness of social roles and how easily the normal world of economic humanity can flip over into scary chaos when everyday life is challenged.   I don’t think that this film lives up to this  It sinks into a languid mood that promises a violent interruption but instead shatters in mere irritability.  Promises a lot but offers only a little.

 
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Posted by on March 6, 2012 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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