Monthly Archives: April 2014

Labor Day

Labor Day film posterSynopsis

Kate Winslet is a lone mother with her son.  She seems to be suffering from agrophobia, she can’t get out of the house confidently.  Her son Henry (Gattlin Griffin) takes her to the supermarket where Josh Brolin (playing Frank) kidnaps the pair and force them to take him home.  He’s a fugitive from jail and they must harbour him.  Eventually Winslet and Brolin build up trust then love, but they must leave so as to get away from neighbours and police.  They pack up for Canada, will they get away?


The critics have been dismissive about this and one can see why, it’s all rather hokey and unrealistic.  This guy is too good to be true, he fixes things around the house, he is a good nurse to a visiting disabled boy.  In one scene it’s all hilariously reminiscent of that clay pot making episode with Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore in Ghost.  This time Brolin teaches Winslet how to make a peach pie, and what he does with the peaches is as ambitiously sensual as what Swayze did with the clay.  Okay, so it’s all what might be some women’s fantasy: the strong capable guy around the house.  There are erotic nuances except the business of masterfully doing what needs to be done.  The boy is initially hostile but is won over by their domestic bliss.  In spite of this, I did quite like the film because it’s closer to the spirit of David Janssen’s Fugitive TV series from the 60s, than the Harrison Ford Fugitive film is.  I’m a fan of Janssen’s fugitive who was essentially a Christlike figure: wrongfully accused of murdering his wife and leading often corrupt and wicked ‘law abiding’ folk on the right path.  In each episode the innocent Richard Kimble is on the run and has to  battle betrayal to the pursuing law enforcer Gerard.  Brolin’s fugitive is similarly a strong decent guy whose misfortunes expose the shortcomings of others.  His behaviour has the tense rationality of the cornered decency.  There is nothing superfluous in the plot and Winslet is good at tightly controlling the emotional turmoil, she could have been hammy but she isn’t.  Hers and Brolin’s is a happy partnership, unlike her disastrous marriage with Leonardro di Caprio in Revolutionary Road.  It’s the unpromising start that blossoms into love.  Sentimental but quite watchable..

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Posted by on April 18, 2014 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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Out of the Furnace

Out of the Furnace film posterSynopsis

Russell (Christian Bale) works in a steel mill and is paying off the gambling debt of his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) who is in between Iraq military tours.  Rodney gets into bare knuckle boxing influenced by John (Willem Dafoe).  John is threatened by Harlan (Woody Harrelson).  Harlan is violent towards women and men.  Russell goes stag hunting with his uncle Gerald (Sam Shephard).  Russell causes deaths in a motor accident and is imprisoned losing his partner.  Harlan kills Rodney and goes after John.  Russell seeks revenge…


This is a failure of a film.  It tries very hard to be like The Deer Hunter but falls short.  Russell and Gerald hunt stags just like in The Deer Hunter but we know Russell is really sensitive because he does not like killing animals, although he’s okay about going after people.  Deer hunting seems to have passed the ‘Outstanding Appropriate Symbol test for American Values’, so it is in this film.  Shephard of course plays himself again as he did in Osage and Mud.  He is the reliably macho man of cowboy art and Marlborough Man mysticism.  Shephard’s presence in a film ensures it effortless Mount Rushmore gravitas.  Christian Bale seems determined to play down that irritatingly squeaky schoolboy he played in Empire of the Sun.  This film gives us the most reliable red neck cliches: the decent cop that the good woman lives with, the silent strong guy who becomes a reluctant killer, the cartoonish psycho waiting for his comeuppence (Woody Harrelson also has to live down the good natured guy in Cheers).  There’s the usual inability to resist the drug of gun vigilantism we see in numerous films e.g. Mud.  The film is all steel town tattoo and sawn-off denim orthodoxies, the plot is the stuff of lots of country and western ballads.  Violence and self pity perform their usual ever so slow and self absorbed dance.  The woman is of course the usual voice of decency and conscience, all nurturing and support.  Guess what – she is a primary school teacher.  If she hadn’t been that, she would have been a social worker.  The closest this film gets to thoughtfulness is Russell looking moody on his porch. Casey Affleck’s Rodney (who ever heard of an American soldier called Rodney?) of course says all the right things about the horrors of war as if you have to go to Iraq to work that out.  Like deer hunting, bare knuckle fighting also passed the ‘Outstandingly Appropriate Symbol test for American Values’.  Rodney might regret violence but he’s hoping to knock the lamplight out of his opponents in order to pick up money.  Willem Dafoe plays his often tried rattyman-with-mence.  The confrontation between him and Harlan provides the only real tension.  There are interesting details of a steel town but these are sacrificed as placements for the arthritic familiarities we associate with the industrial proletariat on film.  All these distinguished actors can’t save this film from catastrophe.

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Posted by on April 16, 2014 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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Starred Up

Starred Up film posterSynopsis

About a young offender Eric (Jack O’Connell)  who is “starred up” (transferred prematurely to an adult jail).  Written by Jonathan Asser who worked as a psychotherapist in prison.  Eric’s father, Nev (Ben Mendlesohn) is in the same prison. Nev clumsily mentors his son and gets him to join the psychotherapist’s sessions.  This official, Oliver, is played by Rupert Friend.  Eric battles with prison guards, the warden, and his fellow prisoners but is helped by his fellow psychotherapy session prisoners. Nev and Eric are brutally treated by the prison warden and they must be separated…


This is violent, unrelentingly brutal, and macho.  It wears its prison cliches fairly lightly but they are prevalent: the locked in entrance of the new prisoner, the prisoner’s alpha heirarchy, macho posturing concealing humane intelligence, the well meaning psychotherapist playing the pained priest figure, the brutally misunderstood central character who can only lash out, the corrupt and vicious warden, the hard-eyed view of caged-in boredom and spartan conditions, harrowing face to face confrontations, and revelations of emotional damage.  All that was lacking was the emotional prison visit.  This is not Porridge (a 1970’s British comedy about prison life, Porridge meaning prison), more like black bile.  Starred Up shows what we all really know, that prison is too often the cure that’s worse than the sickness.  For sheer adrenalin scares, it’s superior to Papillon, Shawshank Redemption and Eastwood’s Alcatraz, watching it feels like being on an ICU (intensive care unit) ward with no back up.  It’s a cream painted, iron-hinged, echo chamber of rage and frustration. The father and his son must suffer their share of being locked up in the same place and this exacerbates the violence resulting from family damage.  Officialdom here, as in most prison movies, is hard faced, pompous and inured to a daily routine of self serving dehumanizing.  Dialogue with prisoners is the ritual of enforced deference, its terms relentlessly enforced.  Rupert Friend plays the agonized, humane psychotherapist.  This is a thankless role, a gift to easy stereotyping.  We’ve often seen the heroic decent guy trying to be one of the ‘kids’, yearning for peer acceptance amongst the amorally violent.  Such would-be’s adopt a fake argot which is excruciatingly ingratiating as it merely emphasises the alienation between the professional and the criminal (like priests who try to be tougher than the tough guys ).  Friend as Oliver does a reasonable job with this thankless task, like Sidney Poitier and Glenn Ford in those ‘Blackboard Jungle’ teacher versus deliquents movies.  The austere harshness of the metalscape around them only accentuate the tensions.  In spite of these prison movie familiarities, this is still a superbly gripping film.

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Posted by on April 2, 2014 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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Under the Skin

Under the Skin film posterSynopsis

Very loosely based on the novel by Michel Faber.  It’s about an alien (Scarlet Johansson) who visits Earth.  She apparently steals the body of a human and then tracks down prey in her van, travelling through the streets of Glasgow.  She takes pity on one of the victims and lets him go.  She witnesses a drowning at sea and leaves a child helpless.  She travels around Scotland.  A forester tries to rape her and discovers her true identity…


I will confess I was deeply disappointed with this movie which refuses to make cerebral compensation for this wilfully low budget appearance.  It’s a familiar sci-fi story: an alien comes to Earth and responds to human reality.  Robert Heinstein wrote Stranger in a Strange Land in which his alien’s benign nature inadvertently satirises human corruption.  Bowie’s Man Who Fell to Earth is based on this.  Bowie’s alien is a family man who is angelic, abused by sinful humans.  Then there is the silly ’90s film Species, which effectively was Geiger’s Alien meets Baywatch. Someone who reads the book tells me it’s about wolf-faced aliens who abduct earthlings and fatten them ready for eating.  For the first ten minutes of Under the Skin we get electric mutterings (learning our language?) within a brilliant circle of light and shade, pierced by a hypodermic threat (?) in an electrified screech.  This is reminiscent of 2001‘s aligned moons and the ‘avant garde’ films of Jordan Belson.  Then it’s on a steep gradient into posturing banality.  There is the unamusingly gimmicky prank of the alien (Scarlet Johansson) picking up unsuspecting members of the Scottish public; they are genuinely unaware that they’re in a film. The film crew are hidden in the back of Johansson’s van and for a lot of the time I felt like I’d been kidnapped and stuffed into the boot of that van.  This is a suffocating and self absorbed journey.  Perhaps all this is meant to emphasise the chance/nature of extraterrestrial visitation, a million miles from “take me to your leader”.  This alien is no Michael Rennie from The Day the Earth stood Still.  She takes her victims to a place of black liquid emptiness where bodies morph into Francis Bacon grotesques of boneless flesh.  This is futurist vampirism.  Okay, I get it, the insidious creepiness of this alien in the guise of a film star has satirical possibilities (which the film is too solemnly portentous to exploit).  The sight of Scarlett Johansson in a Glaswegian street is as unlikely as an alien visitor.  Her would-be visceral darkness and scary blankness mask an oily dark reptilian who looks like a reject from X-Men but a lot of the time she just looks vacant.  The things she sees are strange to her and should be strange to us but the film looks like a minimalist joke of nihilist posing.  There is no plot, of course, just art house self absorption and non-acting.  A waste of time..



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Posted by on April 2, 2014 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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