Monthly Archives: October 2012

Liberal Arts

Liberal Arts film posterSynopsis

Set in a prestigious arts college in Ohio, it stars Josh Radnor as Jesse who visits his alma mater and is  introduced to Elizabeth Olsen’s Libby (Elizabeth).  He also meets a bright student (John Magaro) who is depressive and might do something drastic.  He meets up with his former professor of romantic poetry, Judith Fairfield, and they have a brief affair.  He goes back to New York and corresponds with Olsen.  Richard Jenkins stars as a lecturer who regrets his premature retirement.  Jesse also listens to eccentric advice from Zac Efron.  There is supposed to be the getting of wisdom at the end.


It starts with Jesse in New York where his partner is about to leave him, telling him that she no longer wants to make him feel good about himself.  This movie is all about books but it might as well be called “Depression is an arts course”.  The conversations are disappointingly middle brow, nobody says anything really insightful.  Olsen is a keen student who wants to take a short cut to maturity by having an affair with a guy fourteen years her senior.  She’s the only likeable character in the film.  She has a weakness for trashy vampire books and regards Jesse’s put downs of them as snobbish and elitist.  This movie keeps emphasizing the bleakness of ageing and the disillusionments therein.  Richard Jenkins doesn’t want to retire, and admits he’s been a prisoner of the college for years, he doesn’t know anything else.  Judith Fairfield is a professor of romantic poetry and is cynical and dismissive, and her views of the poets is jaded and belittling.  She dismisses Jesse as an effete and superannuated student.  Clearly he attracts unflattering remarks from women!  He also encounters a New Age nerd who appears intense and mystical but is quite irritating.  His attempts to be delphic look twee and narcissistic.

Although this film is about literate intelligent people, it doesn’t have much time for classical highbrow literature which it considers can be bad for your mental health.  Life is richer and better than literature which can make you depressed.  I find this uncongenial and philistine and its defence of pulp trashy novels quite irritating.  The best scene is when Jesse walks through New York listening to his i-player, he turns out to be an amateur music critic with pertinent things to say.

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


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The Painted Veil

The Painted Veil film posterSynopsis

Based on Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel.  Naomi Watts plays Kitty who marries Edward Norton’s Walter who is a bacteriologist.  It’s the early 1920s and they go off to China.  Watts has a brief affair with Liev Schreiber then goes off to her posting where Toby Jones plays Waddington, the British consul.  The Norton-Watt’s relationship is divorce material but they learn love and respect through life and work.  She gets into voluntary work and Norton tries to eliminate cholera, winning over an initially sceptical army officer.  It ends tragically.


This is a familiar story featuring Victorian morality against the forces of love, sex, and work.  Norton at least has a purpose in his Chinese posting, whereas Watts is required to be decorative and bored.  She finds redemptive purpose in voluntary work (helping the nuns in the local school).  Norton is righteously unforgiving towards Watts for ‘betraying’ him but eventually respects Watts’ striving for authenticity and purpose.  The characters are familiar from ‘colonial’ dramas, there is comical disparity between the emotional repression expected of Brits abroad and their real sexual and psychological needs.  Toby Jones seems to be the precursor of Graham Greene exiles in British imperial ennui, world weary as they are a sympathetic source of wise advice and emotional counsel.  Their faces are mask-poised over the anticipated emotional revelations.

The Chinese themselves are from familiar casting: the no-nonsense grandmother, the cooperative orphans, the resentful officer contemptuous of imperialist foreigners, the stoical death scenes, the competing values of British noblesse oblige and Chinese endurance in the ‘bitter sea’ of China, the suspicious questioning of the foreign’s motives.

The rural scenes invite lyricism: the vivid green grass, the beehive mountains, the shot of dense colour through silk, the contemplative lingering over the portentous juxtaposed with the unexpectedly beautiful.  The acting always holds the attention. Quite absorbing.

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Posted by on October 28, 2012 in Film Reviews, Out on DVD


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On the Road

On the Road film posterSynopsis                                                                                                  Based on Jack Kerouac’s 1957 On the Road.  It stars Sam Riley as Sal (in the book he’s Neal Cassady), Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarity, Kirsten Dunst as Camille, Kristin Stewart as Marylou, and Tom Sturridge as Carlo Marx (based on Allen Ginsberg).  It’s USA in the late ’40s and Sal wants to be a writer and he meets up with all these characters and they drive around America.  Sal and Dean meet Vigo Mortensen as Burroughs, they sleep with prostitutes in Mexico, Dean has gay sex with Steve Busconi then has domestic problems with Kirsten Dunst.  Sal gets to know a working mother as he does some labouring and later he starts on his novel.


I’m not sure what the film wants us to think of these people.  It’s a theme park ride around the 1940s like Pollock and Howl, or any biopic about James Dean.  It’s a 21st century treatment of an age that seems to be difficult to recreate with real feeling, it’s all very self conscious and posed as if the characters are amenably primed to do what’s expected.  The film lovingly presents its bohemian cliches:  the contrived wish to live life to the extreme (‘burn like Roman candles’), the homo-erotic bonding of the self serving mates as they get into tribalized chanting, the obligatory jazz routines where I expected Jude Law to do his Talented Mr Ripley jazz performance, the compulsory drug taking, the adolescent posturing before authority figures, the pretensions to artistic intensity, the appalling treatment of women.  This last in the list is a constant leitmotif of male ‘bohemia’, the free wheeler and sex predator always has subservient women to feed his ego.  Kirsten Dunst looks after the baby, her domestic drudgery the ironic contrast to Dean’s self glorification.  Galatea (Elizabeth Morris) is angry at her husband Mortensen as Bull Lee (Burroughs)  discusses art with the other males as women scrub floors around them.  This ‘free life’ is always at the expense of women.  Mortensen keeps a ‘bohemian’ menage, and his wife brushes lizards out of a tree.  Mortensen himself uses Wilhelm Reich’s eccentric orgone box which is supposed to enhance psychic energy.  The high old time in Mexico is with prostitutes (those other reliable props to the freewheeler’s ego), and Sal predictably gets like Jon Malkovitch in The Sheltering Sky (another film based on self absorption at others’ expense).

As a road movie,On the Road follows the ‘philosophy’ of these films:  the journey is an end in itself and the traveller must ‘find’ himself (it’s a pity he doesn’t get lost).  The film Easy Rider was all about this and what we usually get is privileged types who don’t know what to do with their lives.  The only thing that they expand is not their minds but their self regard.  Like a Woody Guthrie hero, Sal works with cotton pickers but of course this is just a jaunt for his novel like the trip to Mexico.

On the Road is set in the era that gave us coffee bar jazz, beatniks, and pop Buddhism.  We do get some stunning scenery:  bleak winter highways and desert landscapes.  There is the promise of visionary imagery which never turns up.  This movie seems happy to glorify these people and I didn’t detect any ironic distance.  Sam Riley as Sal is not sympathetic.  The director of On the Road made Motorcycle Diaries about the young Che Guevara on his trip around South America, and we get pretty much the same here.  They are supposed to acquire wisdom from drifting about.  I don’t think so.

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Posted by on October 25, 2012 in Film Reviews


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Looper film posterSynopsis

Set in Kansas in 2074, it stars Gordon Levitt as a “looper”, Joe, whose job is to shoot those fallen foul of the mob.  The victims are sent into the future from 2044 and once the deed is done the killer is rewarded with gold or silver ingots strapped to the victims back.  The gang boss is Jeff Bridges.  The fate of all loopers is to be killed 30 years in the future and this closes the loop.  They are shot with a ‘blunderbuss’.  Joe meets his future self, played by Bruce Willis, but he cannot kill him.  Willis pursues a child who will become a real danger “The Rainmaker” (same idea in Terminator).  The child is looked after by Emily Blunt on her farm.  Can Willis do the job?


I sometimes attempt to write science stories but I wouldn’t touch time travel with radiation gloves through a screen!  Time travel works as a comedy (Back to the Future) or as comic book fun (Time Machine or Terminator) but not when it takes itself seriously as in this film.  I always find it pretty bankrupt as a plot device and the notion of time travel seems scientifically and philosophically preposterous.  Looper gets perilously close to cod philosophy about time travel.  Looper also relies on the usual dosage of gratuitous violence, which I have mentioned in a few other offending films.  Dr Johnson said that bestial behaviour is an escape from the pain of being human, mainstream American films certainly do a lot of escaping (like Lawless and a lot of other films). Like Dorothy in Oz, Joe hopes to escape from Kansas and learns French so he can live in Paris but Jeff Bridges from the future advises him to learn Mandarin (a pretty safe prediction).  The street scenes are like in Soylent Green, people are victims of casual brutality.

The sequence on Emily Blunt’s Kansas farm is the longest in the film.  Her farm is surrounded by fields of maize and it reminds me of Cary Grant chased by a crop duster in North by Northwest or aliens in Mel Gibson’s Signs or a lot of Stephen King films.  No good can come of being in a maize field and sure enough Joe is in danger here when he tries to save the “Rainmaker” kid from Bruce Willis as his future self.  The  film lingers a lot on this farm where Emily Blunt plays the obligatorily feisty loner.  There is a sort of love story between Blunt and Joe.  Here we are supposed to think of the nature of love and belonging and identity but it all looks like a pilot for a TV supernatural series.  The kid can levitate people and things so it looks like Omen has got tangled up with some would-be arty film about life on a future farm.  As with a lot of sci-fi films deflecting attention from a possibly tight budget, there is a recurrent gimmicky fetish so in this film people can telekinetically manipulate objects and there are Batman type aerocrafts.  Looper has been praised by critics but I found it shallow and derivative.

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Posted by on October 3, 2012 in Uncategorized


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