Monthly Archives: September 2012

Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina film posterSynopsis

Based on Tolstoy’s novel about Anna Karenina, the wife who took a lover (Count Vronsky played by Aaron Taylor Johnston) and the scandal it caused.  Jude Law plays the cuckolded husband Alexei Karenin.  There are social occasions like dance halls and horse races and journeys to and from country villas.  Domhnall Gleeson plays Levin, a precursor of the socialist revolutionaries into peasant mysticism.  His brother is an anti capitalist and forerunner of the Bolsheviks.  There is another love affair between Levin and Kitty.  Anna’s affair ends tragically of course, caught between marriage and love.


I have not read the book and sometimes I wonder if we should only read a book in its own language, reading it in English can be like looking at the back of a tapestry.  The film has theatrical settings interspersed with real outdoor scenes.  I tend to find this distracting, why not make it completely stylized or completely realistic?  When someone opens a stylized door I wonder ‘what next ?’, and this diverts attention from the character.  The assignment of reality or theatrical stylization to events seem arbitrary.  Why is a horse race indoors and the slums of Moscow attached to the fancifulness of a theatre?  When the dancers freeze in their movements, I felt I was watching an advert for perfume or chocolate.  In spite of this I was absorbed by Keira Knightly’s performance as Anna.  When she is ostracized as the ‘adulterous’ woman in the theatre her panic through the accusing isolating stares is well done.  This is the one scene where the theatrical setting really works (after all it does take place in a concert hall).  The artificiality of all the high class customs suddenly closes in nightmarishly.  This is all of course a familiar story of the 19th century, from Madame Bovary to the doomed lovers in the film Elvira Madigan.  In costume dramas on this subject we expect from our heroine either defiance or submissive reconciliation, but Knightly steers between these, her emotions coming at you from a sudden angle.  She has been ctiticized for having only a couple of expressions, so what if each expression hints of different emotional outpourings.  She can be sociable and then prickly as when, in the way of the exasperated Ibsen wife, she gets angry at her obtuse husband’s bone clicking habit.

The cuckolded husband is played by Jude Law and here he no longer looks glamorous as in other films, he looks sadly ordinary.  Law plays the ‘wronged’ husband well and his self pitying sense of ‘betrayal’ only makes Anna all the more sympathetic.  Law conveys well the vindictiveness that can hide behind humanitarian rhetoric.  As for Vronsky, he’s a lightweight.  The actor looks like Eric Idle (from Monty Python) in fancy dress.  He is vain and self regarding who doesn’t or can’t help Anna when social stigmatism sticks. Domhnall Gleeson is suitably tortured as the idealist in love with ideals and a woman.  In contrast to the theatricality, we see him haymaking with the peasants.  I would have preferred a bigger budget journey round Russia but Knightly is absorbing.

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Posted by on September 27, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Lawless fil posterSynopsis

Stars Tom Hardy and Shia LaBeouf as the Bondurass family in 1931 Prohibition era Virginia, and their conflict with Guy Pearce (the federal agent Charlie Rakes) who is out to close their illegal stills.  Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska play their girlfriend and wife.  The police are reluctant locals recruited into Guy Pearce’s war.  It ends in a shoot out.


This is very familiar stuff.  We get the honky tonk soundtrack lovingly ‘choreographing’ the scenes of predictable violence.  The film is a celebration of brutality and ‘primitive’ ways of living.  Despite the time and place, it’s effectively a western with a wearisomely familiar reverence for any excuse for bloodshed.  Guy Pearce plays Charlie Rakes, a Federal Agent, he is a dandified sadist straight out of Nazi central casting.  He will get his comeuppance, and of course we are meant to feel that he will deserve his bad end.

From the 30s to the 60s we had repressive cinematic codes forbidding the depicting of sex, swear words, and horrifying violence.  In the few decades since the lifting of the code we get film making its claim for gritty, earthy reality by throwing in buckets of blood, Nazi style sadism, and lots of tediously limited vocabulary punctuated with wearisome swearing.  Sex is also obligatory, as if only the late 20th century had discovered it.  Many films wallow in this, then we get the convenient excuse of it’s all being artistically ‘choreographed’ (though I fail to see what resemblance there is between dance and gratuitous violence).  Admittedly the old censorships sanitized reality quite preposterously, but now we have gone to the other extreme and it’s all so solemnly presented rather like a caught out criminal giving would be intelligent excuses for vile behaviour (the more sincerely insisted upon the more acceptable).  This might work for Mel Gibson because he adds the original touch of characters speaking in a language different from English, but so many films seek significance in violence.  We get sadism galore in this film.

Prohibition era films usually happen in Al Capone territory.  We also get the anthropological curiosity of the local church and its Amish look-a-likes with their highly charged gospel songs.  We also get that curious prolepsis into violence as depicted in Bonnie and Clyde, illiterate hillbillydom is always destined to end in bloodshed as if sanctioned by the very ignorance and illiteracy of the characters..


Posted by on September 27, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Total Recall

Total Recall film posterSynopsis

Stars Colin Farrell playing the role that Arnold Schwazenegger plays in the 1990 Total Recall.  Set at the end of the 21st century in a world run by Britain with Australia as a colony (?!?).  Access to these countries is through the Earth’s core.  Farrell plays a techno assembly worker who is married to Kate Beckinsdale and he has a daily routine.  He goes to a mind scan and finds out that he was a rebel leader by the name of Hauser who has been kidnapped into being an agent for the repressive government of Britain.  Beckinsdale is a government agent in on the deception.  Farrell joins the rebels courtesy of Jessica Biel.  Beckinsdale’s government plan an invasion , can Colin save the world?


The original film was set on Earth and Mars and at the time its special effects were amazing.  Schwarzenegger acted woodenly but was an effective action man, Colin Farrell is a more sympathetic hero but his pained expression hasn’t changed much from when he was stuck in that telephone booth several years ago.  The original of the Kate Beckinsale character was Sharon Stone and the sight of her and Schwarzenegger fighting was like a superduper cage fight, by contrast Beckinsale and Farrell look like dysfunctional reality TV spoilt brats.  Is Farrell a double agent?  This film imagines London as floating high rise apartments like the rocks in Avatar, and the street scenes are stolen from Blade Runner.  It’s always gloomy and raining and people are walking about under painted parasols.  There are hi-tech advertizings and it looks like a Bombay slum stripped from its moorings.  The action is far too frenetic, masses of aerocars zipping at dizzying speeds like in I Robot or Star Wars. Given that the film has a 20 year advantage over the original, it disappoints as sci-fi.

Issues of personal identity and personal integrity in a hi-tech world are simplified to role reversals in a Dan Dare world of bewildering density.  At any moment you know it’s all fairground mirror tricks, so the film avoids anything worth saying.  It gets into some cod philosophy about the nature of memory, only to dismiss it as a disposable item, so it undermines the need for a serious look at the continuation of personal identity and responsibility.  A missed opportunity.

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Posted by on September 13, 2012 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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Brave film posterSynopsis

Animation about a Scottish princess who will not conform to the conventional conduct expected of her by her mother (Emma Thompson) and a more indulgent father (Billy Connolly).  Her mother wants her to marry but the suitors are hopeless.  Then the princess gets a magic potion that turns her mother into a bear.  She can only change back if the princess can weave magically…


In the Disney tradition of feisty, independent girls who are superior to the men.  It carries on the good work of Mulan, The Frog and the Princess, and Rapunzel.  However I expected more, and was disapointed because it’s too sanitized for the global market.  It’s a tartan fantasy like an animated label on a whiskey bottle.  At least we were spared a smoothie Englishman who’s always an obvious villain.  It’s a film about Scots people and there are recognizable quirks in the characters.  The fairy story itself is familiar yet colourful.  The obvious answer to my earlier complaint is that it’s only a fairy story, but can’t even a fantasy get beyond the Mel Gibson clownishness of Braveheart.  Recent historians have insisted that while the Highlands were being cleared of people, the fantasy of tartan Scotland was born:  there must be kilts and bagpipes.  Tartan kitsch appears to be a 19th century invention.  This film is Brigadoon as animation.

The Princess herself has fiery red hair (naturally she’s Scottish).  Brave, whether intentionally or not, criticizes certain present day cultural practises:  she rebels against an arranged marriage and she doesn’t like her hair being hidden by a veil.  Brave treads the well worn path of the wayward girl learning love and maturity in the end (like in any Hollywood teen Film), but interestingly there is no boyfriend.   It’s all about reconciliation with a mother who is similarly chastened.  The message is clear, we must be true to our better instincts.  Nice to watch but offers nothing really different.


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Ted posterSynopsis

Seth MacFarlane (of Family Guy and American Dad) is the voice of the teddy bear.  The story starts in 1985 in Boston and John Bennet is bullied by other boys.  He gets a teddy bear for Christmas and it comes to life.  Ted becomes a show biz fixture until the world wearies of the novelty.  Then there is a jump in time to the 35 year old John played by Mark Wahlberg.  Now Ted is a cynical fast talking druggie.  John is in a lousy job, but has a girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis) who later presents John with an ultimatum, either she or Ted must go.  Ted is kidnapped and John and Lori try to get him back…


This is like Paul, the film about the equally cynical and wisecracking alien.  It also follows all the films that use voiced over animals or puppets, which use these totems of innocence to make cynicism and greed look even more hilarious.  The teddy bear dates hookers and leaves a turd on the floor, what else might it do?  Ted and John have a fight that gets quite nasty, it reminds me of the Family Guy fight when Pete Griffin and an oversized cockerel punch the living daylights out of each other.  The disparity between the bear’s cute appearance and its averagely venal behaviour is of course what makes the comedy.  When there is a grossly inappropriate match between voice and appearance (like a growling man’s voice coming from an adolescent girl in The Exorcist) then it’s usually sinister, but it would be difficult to make a teddy bear scary? John and the teddy play the usual small boys who can’t grow up, Lori is predictably the voice of responsibility and maturity.  John and Ted are fans of Flash Gordon and the actor who plays him turns up in the film.

Wahlberg and the teddy have some good comic lines, in one fast talking exchange they go through girl’s names.  There are the shrewd and witty put-downs you would expect from the writer of Family Guy (Susan Boyle gets an unflattering mention).  The alarming moment in Ted is when the film gets serious when he thinks Ted has died – it’s only a teddy bear?

The film does not avoid the pitfall of sentimentality and plot predictability but that doesn’t really matter because the script makes it zip along.  We don’t get the stripping of illusions that we got in Toy Story, and there is no role reversal, or sinister ventriloquism, or fantasy compensation, or an invisible rabbit, just a mostly funny bear and his mate!

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Posted by on September 5, 2012 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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Even the Rain

Even the Rain posterSynopsis

About a film crew who turn up in Bolivia to make a film about Christopher Columbus arriving in the ‘New World’.  Written by Paul Laverty and directed by Icíar Bollaín.  The film unit recruits from local people, one of them becomes a political activist in the fight against a British American multinational company trying to privatize the local water, this will threaten the very survival of the indigenous Bolivians. The film crew is increasingly drawn into the dispute.  Will the Bolivians get justice?


This stars Luis Tosar and Gael García Bernal (who played the young Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries).  These are two film makers driven by the profit agenda, they are insensitive and patronizingly imperious.  Their relationship with the chief agitator is initially crassly insensitive but they are forced to respect the problems of the Bolivians (the dispute really happened).  The big irony at the centre of the film is of course that the film’s bosses replicate the very imperialist arrogance that Columbus and co murderously visited on indigenous peoples.  Tosar and Bernal are manipulative as they self-deludingly suppose that all human decencies can be subordinated to the requirements of their precious cinematic art, just as Columbus suppressed any religious decencies in the pursuit of gold.  There is some debate in the film on the obvious parallels they share with Columbus.  One of the actors plays Las Casas, the monk who eventually turned into the voice of colonialist conscience.  The more cynical among the film crew compare the actor unfavourably with the monk he is playing, they also remind him that though Las Casas defended native Americans he was prepared to use African slaves.  The crew feel that they could justify their own double standards.

As he learns about the plight of the Bolivians, Tosar tries to help out, he grows a conscience in the manner of Ken Loach films where the initially cynical character is drawn into political passions (as if rootlessness and cynicism are pretentious protective devices which we must reject when the politics of survival are paramount).  The Bolivians are not red revolutionaries, they simply fight for the elementary justice that will ensure their own survival.  They fight for their own water, hence the title Even the Rain, which means that even the rain is being taken away from them.

Even the Rain uses vivid images in making its point.  A helicopter airlifts a big wooden cross, the joke is a sacred object turned into a film stunt.  They get local labour to raise the cross, reminding me of the artistic exploitation in Fitzcarraldo where Herzog imitated Fitzcarraldo’s exploitation of local labour in getting Peruvian forest people to drag a steamboat over the jungle.  Extras are asked to drown children, using dolls as props of course, but the extras reject this artistic simulation of horror.  Then there are confrontations in a film studio housing replicas of Columbus’ ships.  This is superbly ironic, the original ships brought Columbus profit and fame but the film ships are stranded in the studio, unused like the film’s project.


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Posted by on September 5, 2012 in Film Reviews, World cinema


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Shadow Dancer

Shadow Dancer posterSynopsis

Made by James Marsh, director of Man on Wire and written by political journalist Tom Bradby.  Set in Belfast in 1973 when Andrea Riseborough (Colette) is a young girl who sends her brother on a shopping mission and her brother is shot.  In 1993 we see her planting a bomb in the metro, then she is arrested and given a choice by Clive Owen (Mae): she must work for the Brits or go to jail.  She decides to work for the Brits as her brothers are involved in IRA activities.  She gets into trouble with both sides as her loyalty is under question.  This has possibly murderous consequences for her mother (Brid Brennan) and puts her brother Connor (Domhnall Gleeson) in the way of danger.  Aiden Gillen is her other brother.  Colette has to lie convincingly about her failed London exploit to IRA fanatic Kevin (David Wilmot).  Mae has run-ins with his superior (Gillian Anderson) over turned IRA people.  What will happen to Colette and Mae?


This is as gripping as you could expect.  Riseborough is good as the troubled former IRA recruit who is caught up in the murderous tangle of loyalty versus familial priorities.  She must protect her family of course, if she works for the IRA she could be murdered or imprisoned, and if she works for the Brits she could almost certainly be murdered.  Her IRA career is partly motivated by vengeance, yet at some stage she must get off the hate spiral, both sides keep her on it.  As we wonder whether she will turn out to be a double agent the tensions are screwed tighter.

As a political thriller it’s competent but it shares the limitations of most films on this subject.  The violence seems inexplicably superimposed on affairs.  It’s important to remember that this violence was happening in the UK, while people were pursuing ordinary lives in houses of varying affluence or poverty but the troubles seem to be merely an eruption of murderous quirkiness as if a soap opera were to be taken over by a cowboy shoot out.  Arguably these films’ intentions are to emphasize horror through its murderous context but for me the film does not explain this.  I think it expects the emotions within Riseborough’s Colette to do this job, but the long shots of her do not justify that expectation, she looks aesthetic but this does not convey the dreadful turmoil she is in.  We see a few totems of tribal conflict: the statue of the Madonna outside a building, the IRA funeral where the flag-draped coffin is placed in the street in which there is a confrontation between cortege and the police, and the Brit-red telephone box monumentalizing in the industrial wasteland.  Usually the very ordinariness dramatizes the horror but doesn’t help us understand it, as in the torture scene in the launderette.

Absorbing as a political thriller but doesn’t try to answer any of the bigger questions.

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Posted by on September 5, 2012 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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