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Monthly Archives: January 2013

The Hunt

The Hunt

Synopsis

Thomas Vinterburg’s film about a teacher, Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), a kindergarten helper in a Danish rural area.  We see him take his son to the deer hunt and at home with his girlfriend.  A child makes accusations against him.  He is ostracized and subject to persecution.  Social interaction is off limits to him.  He is persecuted in a supermarket and there is a terrible scene at a Christmas Eve service…

Criticism

The film clearly establishes that Lucas is innocent, so our focus is on how he copes with the community and how they treat him.  It looks at our sentimentalized gullibility in our readiness to believe these sorts of accusations.  This was interestedly dealt with in Richard Hughes’ 1950s novel High Wind in Jamaica.  The Hunt is a pretty grim view of what human behaviour is capable of.  The one friend who seems to doubt the accusation keeps silent and is too afraid to help.  In what should be a legal matter, most people have made up their minds as they self righteously distance themselves from Lucas as if any friendliness towards him would taint them.  Lucas is a victim of medieval hysteria in a community whose country, Denmark, is regarded as one of the most tolerant and sophisticated in the affluent world, so what hope for the innocent accused in a less ‘enlightened’ culture?  In Britain recently we have witnessed the Jimmy Saville case (a recently deceased entertainer accused of abusing children, colleagues who knew him said nothing).

The Hunt offers us the familiar plot of locals in a rural area ganging up on either outsiders or turning one of their own into an outsider victim.  One thinks of Wickerman and The Village.  Mads Mikkelsen as Lucas is quite absorbing as the accused, he handles ostracism with the support of his son as he desperately tries to hold on to his dignity and sanity.  He never succumbs to paranoia even though he has objective grounds to do so.  We seem to be looking at the frailty of our civilization, how we depend on each other’s capacity for decency to sustain our daily lives.  Without the presence of the law daily interaction can appear to be quite terrifying.  This is human weakness feeding evil and it’s much more convincing about group persecution than (for example) Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

Upon establishing his innocence to the satisfaction of the locals, the film cleverly upsets our expectations.  The locals seem to have got over whatever shame or remorse they might have felt, we get no tearful apologies.  Lucas seems to have forgiven everybody and shows no resentment over his treatment, in this he seems to show more saintly forgiveness than Nelson Mandela towards the apartheid regime.  Someone then tries to shoot Lucas as he returns to the forest.  We are left guessing who did this and for what motive: anger at being proved wrong, lingering hatred for his supposed crime?  We are left guessing.

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Elena

Elena

Synopsis

Elena (Nadezdha Markina) is a middle aged woman living in a swish Moscow apartment with her partner the affluent Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov).  They sleep separately and eat together.  Elena’s son Sergei (Aleksey Rogin) is unemployed, living with his family in a shabby flat.  Elena gives him money.  Vladimir’s daughter Katya (Yelena Lyadeva) lives off her father’s money.  Vladimir has a heart attack and dies because Elena gives him the wrong medication.  Vladimir hasn’t left a will, what will Katya and Elena do with the money…?

Criticism

One is always aware of this being a film set in contemporary Russia.  For me, it’s a moral fable about the (for a few) more affluent post-communist world of that country.  There is a growing affluent middle class in Russia and it lives in a style unimaginable a bare twenty or so years ago.  When we see the austerely still camera gaze on the apartment and Elena starting her daily routine, we might expect her to be the reliable stereotype of the strong, wise Russian woman primed with the peasant resilience of her forbears, but she commits murder to satisfy her family’s greed.  She calmly and efficiently gives Vladimir the wrong medication.  The film gives much attention to this as it does to the details of her apartment and her routine. She keeps her nerve through the emotional turmoil of guilt and regret that she must feel.  The mask stays tightly on.  This is a very hard look at contemporary Russia, none of the characters are likeable.  Vladimir and Elena self righteously argue about the merits of their own family whilst dis’ing the other’s.  Elena’s son Sergei is a wife-bulling slob and his is a surly waster.  Vladimir’s daughter Katya  is a self serving attitudinising cynic who lives off her father.  There might be some affection between Vladimir and Katya but one doubts her disinterestedness given her prospect of a moneyed inheritance.  Despite the lingering shots (reminding me of Tarkovsky and Haneka), Elena cleverly sustains a plot tension which tautens the film’s nervous system to a highly watchable pitch.  Along this tension the money-grabbing characters trickle their drops of acid.

My only problem with the plot is that the medical authorities would surely suspect something especially when a few people will gain from Vladimir’s death.  Elena is a nurse, and there is nothing dubious about the medication?  The film does not tell us what Katya will do about Elena’s family moving into her father’s apartment, will she just accept it?  This is unresolved and it leaves us guessing.  An absorbing film.

 

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Midnight’s Children

Midnight’s Children

Synopsis

Based on Salman Rushdie’s novel about the fate of five generations of a Muslim family from independence to Indira Gandi’s emergency of the mid ’70s.  A boy of affluent parents is swapped by a nurse with a poor boy who will be apprenticed to a busker.  The affluent boy is visited by spirits of children born at the same hour, they have superhuman powers.  We follow the rich boy to Pakistan’s war with India (19655) then to the formation of Bangladesh in 1971, and to the dark skies of Indira Gandhi’s emergency power.

Criticism

I’ve not read the novel so for me this is purely a film, no doubt as a literary heavyweight it’s got reminders of other literary classics.  Its forays into magical realism (the invisible children, the invisibility of a man in a basket) look clumsy and stilted.  Drastic editing seems to have given some characters walk on parts, as if they’re doing their bit to represent aspects of India and Pakistan’s history since 1947.  Charles Dance plays a pantomimic British Patrician, all etiolated quirkiness, so there we have the outgoing British Raj.  The poor child becomes too much of a symbol to be a convincingly rounded character, his violence and corruption are pasted on.  The film’s portrayal of mid 20th century Islam in India is corrective to our current emphasis on the more ascetic and puritanical aspects of that religion.  These Islamic people even drink alcohol and are partly cosmopolitan, they wear bright clothes and listen to jolly music.  Delhi scenes of 1972 remind me of that city which I visited in 1973.  I don’t know if Rushdie includes the caste system in his novel but it was (and is) an urgent reality of life in India and the film could have taken the opportunity to give at least a glancing acknowledgement of this but it doesn’t.  A wall poster in 1973 reminds us of Bollywood films and that world in Bombay that Clive James writes about in his novel Silver Castle.  I remember the news about the creation of Bangladesh and the film captures this vividly, celebrating it rather than wallowing in death.  The switching of the babies is a sort of fairytale introduction to the story.  When the nurse confesses to doing this the father repudiates the substituted son, patriarchal identity, a search for authenticity, must be unchallenged.  There is a crisis of identity, a search for authenticity (like in the politics of India), which current reality cannot satisfy.  From the Laurence Sterne type opening, with its shaggy dog story about the length of the founding patriarch’s nose, to the gloom of the emergency, the film does a creditable job helped by the voice-over of Rushdie himself.

 
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Posted by on January 23, 2013 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Life Of Pi

Life Of Pi

Synopsis

Ang Lee’s film from Yann Martel’s Booker Prize winning novel.  A Canadian writer (Rafe Spall) meets Pi, Piscine Molitor Patel (Irrfan Khan), a lecturer in philosophy.  Pi tells the writer he will enable him to believe in God and talks about his boyhood in Pondicherry in India where his father ran a zoo.  At the zoo is a tiger called Richard Parker, from the name of his captor.  Pi becomes interested in different religions, which annoys his scientific father.  His family take the zoo to Canada but a storm sinks the ship.  Pi is left on a boat with the tiger, a orang-utan, a zebra, and a hyena.  Eventually, just Pi and the tiger are left.  They come across a meerkat infested island with a grim secret, travel further, then go their different ways.

Criticism

This is a story within a story like those Russian dolls.  At the end, the Japanese owners of the sunken ship are naturally concerned as to what happened and Pi gives an open ending.   Is Richard Parker the tiger, really Pi?  Did the ship sink?  Does it matter?  I enjoyed the film as a sea adventure, like one of those war films whose sailors are stranded on a dinghy.  Pi explores the details of how any of us might cope in such a situation like the 16 year old Pi (Suraj Sharman) had to do.  This would not be possible without CGI, computer technology comes into its own here.  The details of the animals, especially the tiger. are amazing.  The sea looks spectacular, then there is the whale rising out of the psychedelic neon water.  What would David Lean have done with sea had he had CGI.  This film would be his dream answer.  As a story about a marooned individual facing the sea, it reminds me of Pincher Martin (where everything in the book happened in a moment before death by drowning).  It could also be Castaway or Swiss Family Robinson without (mercifully – ha! ha!) that sanitized family.  Pi works as a religious parable: the spiritual worth of survival by ordeal, paralleling the belief in God through a mystical journey.  Like a parable, Pi subverts and outrages our rationalist expectations, Pi must show a Job-like endurance in whatever nature throws at him.  The film neatly reverses our predatoriness towards the sea and its life, Pi must await what the sea willl do to him.  Sharing a boat with a tiger does a neat metaphorical job, the tiger is an enemy (like the sea) but it also faces with Pi the common enemy, the sea.  Pi and the tiger have been ejected from Noah’s ark of the ship and they are both Jonah-like in their helplessness before the sea.  Since Blake’s Tyger Tyger, the tiger has become the symbol of beauty and power.  Why do people gawp at these animals in zoos and circuses if not to admire the danger of death and beauty in one big cat?  In Blake, the tiger is a revolutionary force, in Pi  its uneasy and difficult relationship with the boy is a spiritual transformation.  A spectacular and thrilling film.

 
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Posted by on January 11, 2013 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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The Impossible

The Impossible

Synopsis

A Spanish film based on the story of the Spanish family, the Alvarez Belons, and how they were separated by a tsunami which hit their beach resort in 2004 and how they are re-united after searching through chaos and wreckage.  Henry Barrett is the dad (Ewen McGregor) a British businessman based in Japan (finds out he’s lost his job), his partner is Maria (Naomi Watts).  Maria is lost with her son Lucas (Tom Holland) and Harry is left with Thomas and Simon.  Do they all re-unite?.

Criticism

There has been quite a debate about making the tsunami a tourist tragedy rather than a tragedy for the Thai people.  The complaint is that this affected far more Thai people than tourists (the main catastrophe was in Indonesia), so the film should reflect this.  If you follow this logic then any film made in a foreign (especially poor) country in which the stars are white actors is not acceptable, but why not?  This argues that the contents of a film should reflect the demography of the setting, so anything exceptional done by locally exceptional or different people is not permissable..  This is surely absurd, for example Lawrence of Arabia is about a white guy in Arabia, not about an Arab in Arabia.  The opposing argument might insist that in tragedy like this we should only watch Thai people in the disaster that struck their coast.  Most of the victims in this film are white so the anti-white tourist argument certainly has a point.  What the anti-white tourist argument could more cogently say is that the film invites us to be voyeurs of disaster and tourists of others’ miseries.  My main problem with The Impossible is that it unthinkingly illustrates the soft colonialism of the ‘compassionate’ rich of affluent countries.  The Thai people and scenery only become cinematically interesting when they suffer a catastrophe and we can all feel like benevolent UN aid workers in our concern for the victims.  The Beach does not exaggerate the narcissistic awfulness of some tourists.  You could see The Impossible as showing the benevolent humanity that some white tourists are capable of, but does this have to be a matter of such self congratulation?  One is reminded of these besieged westerners in The Killing Fields.  The psycho drama of western privilege in moral choice.  Ewen McGregor is a nice guy who does a lot of good work but he’s a bit of a re-cycled professional Brit (like John Mills or Anthony Steele), the acceptable face of globally branded British-ness.  This is disaster porn, we see the aesthetics of apocalyptic breakdown in the dirty hospitals and wrecked landscapes, we become tourists of the vicarious.  The dramatic scope of loss and finding, of searching and emotional recovery, are fully milked in this coffee table trip through others’ tragedies however tastefully acted it may be.

 
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Posted by on January 11, 2013 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook

Synopsis

Pat (Bradley Cooper) is bipolar, released from hospital to live with parent Pat (Robert de Niro) unemployed (a bookie) and mother Jacki Weaver.  He studies literature to get back with wife Nikki who has a restraining order on him.  Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a widow.  He asks Tiffany to give a letter to Nikki but Tiff insists he must learn to dance.  Pat goes to an “Eagles” football game and is arrested.  Tiffany tells Pat Snr she can be lucky for him so if “Eagles” win and Pat and Tiffany get at least 5 out of 10 in dance competition he will win money he lost to a gambling associate.  Is everybody happy at last…?

Criticism

This is a lightweight rom-com that pretends it isn’t, it wants to be about mental illness.  Silver Lining’s idea of mental illness is people shouting at each other, and they do it a lot in this film.  Seemingly, the only way people can be cured of their illness is if they go through the plot predictabilities of a rom-com.  I have been told the novel it comes from is darker than this feel good romp.  When Pat jogs he wears a black bin liner, I’ve been told there is a reason for this but it looks to me like laughter at the expense of the mentally ill, wearing a bin liner is just the kind of thing they do, right?  It seems that a reassuringly happy ending for a romance is just the ticket to heal bipolar illness.

Robert de Niro as Pat Snr does a lot of actorish shouting which is not really anger but shows us how endearingly quirky he is.  By the way, he is obsessive compulsive and this adds to his comic appeal, right?  Tiffany is of course sharp and feisty, her own mental disorders as played by Jennifer Lawrence, look like a fashion accessory and this should make us uneasy.  Pat reads books as a way of getting back with his wife Nikki.  One of the truly funny moments is when she dismisses Lord of the Flies as a bunch of nasty kids who pick on a well meaning fat kid, then she tosses the book out of the door.  For those who like the now fashionable ballroom dancing, the dance scenes are funny.  There’s also some Adam Sandler type humour at the expense of racists before the “Eagles” game, but the rare funny moments do not compensate for the rom-com platitudes.

 
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Posted by on January 2, 2013 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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The Master

The Master

Synopsis

Set just after World War Two, Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell a war damaged veteran who drifts about and cannot adjust to everyday life.  Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd takes Quell into his cult.  Quell is an alcoholic, his mother is institutionalized, he’s left his love and is possibly incestuous.  Quell has problems with Dodd’s indoctrinating of him.  One of Dodd’s followers, Helen Sullivan (Laura Dern), has doubts which infuriate Dodd.  Quell thinks he has a vision which tells him to visit Dodd in England, Dodd gives him an ultimatum…

Criticism

There have been films about cults: the sexually exploitative charismatic leader who leads his dupes into disastrous self sacrifice or even death.  Phoenix is good at undirected rage acquiring a more sinister paranoid coherence through Dodd’s mentoring.  For me, this is also an allegory about post second world war America.  Quell can be superficially seen as ‘Everyman’ trying to adjust after the war, then he gets into the 1950’s propagation of the cults’ self help as preached by such as Dale Carnegie and Ayn Rand.  Then there is the disillusionment, with its messianic promise, which is like the post Vietnam mood.  There can be obvious similarities between cultish neurosis and the perfectionist star system of Hollywood, so in the lovely Philadelphia house in which they practice their cult, it looked like film stars doing a course in method acting.  This film itself, ironically could inculcate cultish-ness.

Lancaster Dodd is essentially a snake oil salesman endowed with rhetoric that can seem plausible to the gullible, whether emotionally deprived or ill educated.  Dodd is a charismatic brute who loses his charm when crossed or contradicted, as he is by Helen Sullivan.  Dodd’s son is hearteningly contemptuous of his father’s fakery, but is too weak to stand up to him.  This is a very scary moment in the film, even when reality breaks in there is no lessening of the hallucinating power Dodd has.  Are there uncomfortable echoes of what cinema can do?  He entertains his cult following in plush places, his harem gets naked in household games, the atmosphere quite sexualized.  He subjects Quell to an insanely repetitive methodology, presumably making the indoctrination more effective.  Quell degenerates from picturesque wildness to paranoid brain washing, inflamed by the emotional force between him and Dodd.  Their relationship goes from cautious respect to filial intensity.  The Master refuses to offer a satisfying resolution, Dodds gets no well-deserved comeuppance.  Amy Adams plays his wife, she is obviously strong and her own person, but she remains Dodd’s cultic enforcer.  The Master offers a possibly unintentional parody of Hollywood’s fantasy compliant women who can only find happiness with the right man.

 
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Posted by on January 2, 2013 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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