Monthly Archives: January 2014

Twelve Years a Slave

12 Years A Slave film posterSynopsis

Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Soloman Northup.  He is a black musician in 1841 New York and is abducted, enslaved, and labours for William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch ) whose sadistic foreman Tibeats (Paul Dano) nearly hangs Northup who is then enslaved by Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).  Can Northup trust first a white worker on the plantation, and then Boss (Brad Pitt) to get his release?


Steve McQueen has looked at the suffering of the tortured body in Hunger, and in this film there is the suffering of the slaves in the antebellum South of the US.  Amazingly, this appears to be the first film to look at the full horror of slavery.  Gone with the Wind is anodyne fairy tale, Roots was a  bland  TV product, Django Unchained opted for comedy, and Amistad was all courtroom drama in which white film stars predominated.  When Northup is abducted, he’s subjected to a relentless beating as an induction into everyday sadism.  The obscenity of this is so suffocatingly fetid, one looks for a hole to breathe through.  William Ford is comparatively decent even though a beneficiary of slavery, Tibeats and Epps are simply foul sadists.  One starts to think of the Hegelian view of slavery, how it corrupts the enslaver as well as the enslaved, anything to mitigate the horror where the Louisiana swampland is a sealed hell of tropical venom.  When we see slaves picking cotton it’s as if the lush appearance of it is mocking us with the promise of a Terence Mallick lyricism, instead there is just the lash and death.  Hans Zimmer’s music is like a tension pulled to snapping point.  In one scene, Tibeats leaves Northup on tiptoe with a noose around his neck as the life of the plantation goes on unconcernedly around him.  McQueen’s camera lingers over this for several long minutes.  Ford cuts him (and us) free.  There’s another drawn out scene in which Northup just looks out at the surrounding horror, his face registering terrified shock and dismay that never succumbs to despair.  Edwin Epps is the distillation of slaver evil: pathologically vindictive.  His insane jealousy of the slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) leads to the most graphic details of a back wrecked by a whip.  Epps’s wife (Sarah Poulson) is insanely envious of Patsey, her cruelty just as unpredictably dangerous as that of Epps because it mostly lacks physical gratification and is more invidious.  It’s all like being taken on a concentration camp trip, each atrocity a shocking education.  It makes us look at some of those top hatted costume dramas in a different way, anyway it forcefully made me aware that even the recent Willberforce movie recoiled from showing a slave ship on its horrific ocean passage and it would have been better if it had.

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Posted by on January 26, 2014 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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The Railway Man

The Railway Man film posterSynopsis

Starring Colin Firth as Eric Lomax, a railway engineer and enthusiast who meets and marries Patti (Nicole Kidman). His post traumatic stress attacks prompt (Nicole Kidman) into delving into his wartime experiences in the Far East.  His friend (Stellan Skarsgård) tells about their ordeal in the Japanese prison camp where they worked on the River Kwai railway.  Because they had a radio they were tortured by the Japanese Kempai secret police. The translator Nadase is played by Hiroyuki Sanada (older) and Tanroh Ishida (younger).  Colin Firth wants revenge as he tracks down the Kempai’s translator who was involved in his torture.


I spent nearly four years teaching in China and whilst there I did not learn as much as I could have wished about its Second World War history where over ten million Chinese died as a result of the Japanese invasion.  How many films have we seen about that?  Empire of the Sun ??!!  As for Britain and Japan we’ve had Tenko, A Town like Alice, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, and of course the laughable Bridge on the River Kwai.  That the suffering of one hundred thousand people who died in the building of the railway should be reduced to an absurd fable about the eastern and western mind, that the colonel in charge of the British should effectively become a traitor for working for the Japanese, what did these soldiers make of this travesty?

Eric Lomax and his fellow engineers suffered in the building of the railway (railway construction has always been slave work).  Lomax brings the expected stoical dignity to the part. He initially seeks revenge but in a coldly methodical way, and in trying to do so he learns forgiveness, ending up interogating himself as much as he does Nagase.  Nagase eventually achieves a kind of redemption.  The Railway Man looks as if it’s prepared to ask questions around these subjects, and of the nature of the war, but since it’s too big for its alllotted time it can’t do more than hint in the second half of the film.

How remorseful was Nagase, what effect did this interrogation have on his conscience?  In The Railway Man it looks too compressed, it quickly goes through the motions, it really needed an entire film on that meeting alone.  Patti plays her part with ascetic British decency but one wanted to know more about her.

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Posted by on January 26, 2014 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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Mandela : Long Walk to Freedom

Mandela: Long Walk to Feedom film posterSynopsis

Biopic about Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba) from being a lawyer in 1940s South Africa to ANC activism, his imprisonment in 1964 and his life in prison and release to global eminence.  It looks at his personal life and at Winnie Mandela (Naomie Harris) and her struggles with apartheid officialdom.


The timing of this film couldn’t be better, released just after Mandela’s death.  Although this film doesn’t flinch at Mandela’s self serving treatment of his first wife, and it acknowledges Winnie Mandela’s struggle, it is mostly predictably hagiographic so it reinforces the myth.  Interestingly, according to a South African producer Oks Mseleku, South African women regard Winnie’s role as more important than Nelson Mandela’s (is this fair considering his imprisonment?).  She suffered solitary confinement and never forgave her persecutors whereas Mandela became martyr-dependant on his Afrikaan jailers.  I confess that I am not a Mandela admirer, for me he was a flawed politician. because he was too intent on being a “good man”, moral superiority can hamper political effectiveness.  Bertold Brecht wrote about the unpolitical temptation to be good.  As President he failed to speak out against evil dictators (he was said to have given his support to one!).  He could be pompously autocratic with his own comrades, even as he cultivated his Kumbaya prose with his captors.  From his prison years his growth into Gandhi-like moral stature compensated for the enforced parenthesis of political activism during his prison life, and this moral myth factored into a global need for the saint who would dwarf our moral pettiness as we continue to be anti-racial at no personal cost.  The film takes this easy way out: we get the usual gushing orchestra as he strokes the wheat in the African. landscape.  Opposition to racist stupidity is the usual stoical humour plus photogenic anger.  His years as a lawyer and activist are rushed through, which is unsurprising because here he is merely a human being rather than the world’s saint.  The courtroom scenes glaringly pay tribute to his obvious bravery and eloquence.  Once he’s behind bars the film focuses on his moral image especially when, after the Soweto riots, newly imprisoned young activists challenge him on his moral patience, he seems to be turning into the wise patriarch deigning to listen to criticism.  In his negotiations with de Klerk’s politicians they turn into reverential schoolboys, he would have got a feistier reception from any apartheid victim

Mandela gives it’s subject the sort of sentimentally reverential treatment that Attenborough would have given to it, indeed it seems to imitate Attenborough’s Gandhi and Cry Freedom.  Attenborough also does the aging saintly patriarch routine quite well, as long as there is nothing ordinarily human to tarnish the icon.  What the film doesn’t need is the song at the end, it’s by that would be saviour of Africa, the creepily opportunistic Bono (Bonehead).  Spectacular but unconvincing.

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Posted by on January 21, 2014 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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All is Lost

All is Lost film posterSynopsis

Robert Redford plays a lone yachtsman in the Indian Ocean.  A steel container collides with the yacht and leaves a hole in the side which Redford plugs with fibre glass and resin.  In a storm the boat overturns and becomes increasingly waterlogged. Spoiler Alert! Redford abandons the yacht and uses his dinghy.  Two ships pass him by, later he desperately signals to a boat at night…


There are only a few sentences in this film, it’s all action.  It’s as if the sounds of the sea and ship become the sound effects for a manual of self help whilst at sea.  The film’s ‘language’ is stripped down to the bare onomatopoeia of mounting desperation from earlier self control.  Shut your eyes and the clatter of boat objects will tell you this is good old American self sufficiency.  The later sucking of the water over and in the raft rubber tell you there is the desperation of wait and helplessness.  Towards the end of the film Redford should be a lot weaker than he appears to be, but then if he were too weak he would not be ready for action that completes this drama, so we’ll let artistic licence win out.

Redford was of course one of the film gods of the 70s but All is Lost is an interesting reminder of the Redford who played rugged resourcefulness as in Jeremiah Johnson where he played a trapper in the old American west.  Perhaps this is the idealized self image of Redford, in his career he has never played odd balls or failures.  It’s as if he must be as capable as his good looks demand him to be.  In All is Lost his refusal to panic is almost super human, he never gives way to terror or self pity, merely frustration.  There is no psychological deterioration, he is the master of his terrifying circumstances.  In Pincher Martin by William Golding, the entire action of the novel takes place an instant before Martin dies and there is a temptation to await the same alarming twist in all films about extreme situations, like the recent film Burial.  One looked in vain in All is Lost for this kind of ending.  It’s simply about the nuts and bolts of survival.  There is no Life of Pi play with narrative, no biblical resolution, he’s neither Job nor Noah.  There is a story by Tolstoy about death brought on by a trivial accident with a window handle, and there is the same farce about the start of this tragedy, the yacht deteriorates after a metal container containing trainers has crashed into it and ripped a big hole.  Similarly in Lonely are the Brave, Kirk Douglas, the anachronistic cowboy, is brought down by a collision with a truck carrying toilet bowls, a banal and unheroic nemesis. The ending of Redford’s All is Lost is somewhat unlikely and might be the result of hallucinatory wishful thinking.


Posted by on January 20, 2014 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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Carrie film posterSynopsis

Repeats the story of the 1976 de Palma film.  Carrie (Chloe Grace Moretz) is bullied at school.  Her fiercely religious mother (an agent of religious repression) is eventually powerless to frustrate Carrie’s desire for normal company.  Carrie uses her telekinetic powers to enact revenge when humiliated as Prom Queen at the ball.


Kimberley Peirce’s Carrie could have been a disaster and it isn’t but it doesn’t develop, elaborate, or in any way improve on Palma’s film.  A remake of this Stephen King story would have to make a good case for itself but it fails to do that, de Palma’s Carrie is unrepeatable since it speaks of its time.  This Carrie is set in 2013 present when there are mobile phones, computers etc.  Chloe Moretz’s Carrie is too self possessed and “normal”, lacking the weird otherworldliness that Sissy Spacek brought to the role.  We’ve also become inured to forty years of special effects ploddingly repeating The Exorcist or Carrie itself.  Peirce’s Carrie simply isn’t capable of bringing any psychological subtlety. Julianne Moore does her best as Carrie’s sadistically evangelistic mother but her control looks more like mere bullying until undone by Carrie’s abilities.  Her control should be more difficult and painful to break free from.  The sanitary towel bullying at the start would be more viciously effective in the less hi-tech world of ’76 but could Moretz’s Carrie really be so insulated from biological reality in today’s world?  Any scariness that the film can summon consists in the nasty politics of young women at high school and this has too much competition with similar films over the decades to be effective.  Watchable, but really quite pointless.

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Posted by on January 19, 2014 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mr Banks film posterSynopsis

P. L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins (played by Emma Thompson), needs money and Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) will pay her for the rights to Mary Poppins.  P. L. Travers is appalled by what she sees as Disney’s vulgarity. There is a back story of her upbringing in Australia, her father is an alcoholic bank clerk (played by Colin Farrell), her mother can’t cope and they get a nanny on whom Mary Poppins is based.  Eventually Travers and Disney learn more about each other and we end up with the film premiere of Mary Poppins.


There is a lot of comedy in the culture clash between the posh cut-glass accented martinet P. L. Travers and the folksy Walt Disney.  Travers cultivated poets and writers and had been on the ideological left whereas Disney was a corporate tyrant in paternalist disguise.  I find it regrettable that Disney poured his hokey syrup over the 20th century’s fantasy world for the young.  I have no time for his anti trade unionism or his flirtation with McCarthyism, and it is easy to see why Travers, with her rather darker Mary Poppins would resist Disney’s blandishments.  In the end it must have been the money.  I wonder if children at the time would have preferred the jolly film to the more austere books. We have become so habituated to writers succumbing to corporate schlock that it is easy to make Travers look like a cranky curmudgeon.  I had to resist thinking of her as such since we’ve got the hindsight benefit of the much liked film.  I prefer her resistance to the salesmanship of Disney, it’s as if she could see the route that cinema would take and how we’ve replaced emotional investment in stories with formulaic banalities.  Tom Hanks does a very avuncular Walt, traipsing around his vulgar empire like a cartoon storyteller.  Emma Thompson is superb as the emotionally damaged daughter of an alcoholic.  We learn that Mary Poppins is really more about the bank clerk father who has us all dancing with a kite at the end of the film.  The Australian story gives the film another sort of Disney gloss, the frontier family coping against the odds.  It works as a real life fable even if it’s not a happy one.  We only see the stars of Mary Poppins for a moment.  I’m always amused by the criticism Dick Van Dyke got for his supposedly terrible cockney accent in the film, as it’s no worse than any rent-a-Londoner’s accent in the Hollywood of the 40s, 50s, or 60s.  If they were his model the blame should be theirs, not Van Dyke’s.  They have no excuse, they were Brits who played up to the “cor blimey guvnor” limey of Hollywood fantasy.  When Disney tells Travers about his harsh childhood, I felt some sympathy for him and presumably that worked well on Travers.  Great entertainment.

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Posted by on January 1, 2014 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Hunger Games: Catching Fire film posterSynopsis

Part two of the trilogy by Suzanne Collins about Katniss Everdene who is one of a group of young people recruited in a dystopian future by a totalitarian regime to provide reality TV killing contests.  Donald Sutherland is the tyrant and Philip Seymour Hoffman is his new games impresario. The proletariat work in mines and are subject to brutal militarized discipline.  Katniss is recruited with her boyfriend Peeta Mellark.  She meets the other contestants and appears on Stanley Tucci’s reality TV show.  The contestants are let loose on each other in the jungle…


Even though this is mostly a re-cycling of the first film, that is not necessarily a bad thing.  After all, Katniss is let loose with new people facing new challenges like on a  hi-tech Dr Moreau’s island.  Philip Seymour has devised a kind of water wheel which interferes with the hunt when things get a bit slow.  They face poisonous fog, carnivorous baboons and each other.  Survival is supposed to be the paramount concern but contestants are effectively subversive when they undermine the rules and show inefficient compassion.  The satire is obviously directed at the infantile vileness of reality TV, this is Brave New World with violence rather than soma as the drug.  Elizabeth Banks re-appears as the decadent mentor of the players, in her post modernist make up and clothes she is a Blade Runner Paul Theroux-type party goer (from or a parody O-Zone) of ’70s transgressions.  Under the exotica she is a fussy martinet.  Donald Sutherland is all ruthless smarm, with his power-entitled delivery of self serving logic.  There is the usual caricature of Hollywood Rome: the chariot procession and the Neronic banquets offering its guests instant regurgitation (like in a Roman vomitarium) so as to try all food.  Corporate power relies on the availability of ritual as cliche, Hunger Games exploits this and satirizes it at the same time.  StanleyTucci as the impresario is so transparently insincere that he’s actually quite honest, a sort of study in visual irony (Simon Cowell in the X Factor is simply slimy).  This shows that sincerity and honesty do not have to be synonymous.  Katniss is superior to the other contestants, her only concession to emotion is for her family, not for any leading man.  I would say that this is a film ‘about’ adolescents and young people rather than ‘for’ them.

Since it largely repeats the idea of the first film, we get the re-appearance of the good ideas – the cornucopia, the electric dome of the sky, the sky telecasting – which are a welcome elaboration but in the next film we should expect development.

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Posted by on January 1, 2014 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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