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Monthly Archives: January 2015

Exodus

Exodus film posterSynopsis

Based on the biblical story of Moses leaving Pharoah Rameses’ court and learning of his Hebrew identity.  He meets God’s messenger at the burning bush.  Moses wants to free the Hebrew slaves but Rameses doesn’t agree and so is visited by the plagues.  The slaves are released then pursued by Pharoah, whose army is drowned in the Red Sea which parted for the Hebrews.

Ridley Scott’s movie is always aware of the Ten Commandments (1956) starring Charlton Heston at the height of the cheesy biblical epic.  That film catered for bible-belt sensibilities of the time.  Heston was a granite monument to stolid acting, the scenes could have come out of a Jehovah’s witnesses prayerbook.  Scott seems uneasy with the religious aspects of the story since he’s determinedly low key, wanting to avoid the embarrassments of cornball sentiment which Scott can’t resolve.  His vision of God’s messenger is a middle class British schoolboy aiming for understatement but undoing it by attacks of childish petulance, presumably substituting for God-like authority.  It’s that same trick of demurral which apologizes for numinous impart.  This is the educated liberal approach to religious mysticism for the Harry Potter generation.  This same syndrome stalked Willem Defoe in Last Temptation.  If Scott is uneasy with religion why make this film at all?  It’s analogous to doing a ‘realistic’ Robin Hood.  When the whole point is that Robin Hood should be a preposterous fantasy.  It doesn’t offend and neither does it steer between these temptations.

The sets are sumptuous and the plagues have good special effects.  The acting is pretty good, dominated by Australians.  Rameses the Pharoah becomes ever more reptilian under his face paint.  His tyranny subtly probes for advantage.  The tone of voice now overawes, and now deceives to 0kill.  Bale looks reliably tortured as he gazes nobly into any reminder of his conscience.  Rameses and Pharoah are the brothers who learn they are not so:  loss and finding of self, about keeping faith with one’s identity.  It’s a message that’s become urgently pertinent to our world.

 
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Posted by on January 25, 2015 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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The Babadook

The Babadook film posterSynopsis

Starring Essie Davis who is a mental health nurse living with her son.  Her husband was killed in a car crash on the way to hospital where she gave birth.  Her sister tries to get her to be more sociable.  She reads the story of the Babadook to her son and it seems this storybook bogeyman takes on a life of its own and it scares them.

Review

All good ghost stories explore the ambiguous shadows between the real and the illusory.  Spooks should be just as scary from the imagination as from an external agency.  The Babadook seems to be about the psychological disintegration of a grieving and stressed woman.  So we’re meant to think that the Babadook is only an illusion.  When she sees the bed shake and her son thrown about, is it just imagination?  The film wants the best of both worlds, the inner drama of encroaching madness and an old fashioned bogeyman doing his Halloween routine.  It’s quite promising at first.  The acting is well paced and the build up of menace is well heralded.  Mother and son live in a house that’s all black and grey, as if they’re trying to win an Adams Family contest.  It’s all bare wood, creaking doors, and creepy shadows, which shrewdly exploits retro 70’s horror.  It depicts the claustrophobia of psychic breakdown quite well, but then the script disintegrates alongside Essie’s mind .  We get the familiar cliches of horror films since The Exorcist:  The jittery furniture, bass growls, the screaming fit, cracking ceilings.  What a cop out!  It’s lost the same opportunity for imaginative originality as a lot of films that succumb to the inanities of special effects.  It could have had a subtler build up like in Stephen King’s Misery at the terror of helplessness.  The boy is a screeching irritant straight out of The Omen.  Mention of Stephen King prompts the thought that Babadook does for black and grey what The Shining does for red, except that it fails.

 
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Posted by on January 25, 2015 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Foxcatcher

Foxcatcher film posterSynopsis

Based on the true story of John du Pont  (billionaire) who ‘mentors’ wrestlers for the US Olympic team in Seoul in 1980.  They are called Team Foxcatcher.  Steve Carrell plays du Pont, the wrestling brothers are Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave (Mark Ruffalo).  Dave is the elder brother and Mark looks up to him.  Dave is persuaded to join later as the team trains in du Pont’s mansion grounds.  It’s about the relationship among these people.  Vanessa Redgrave plays du Pont’s mother and he seeks her approval of his wrestling ambitions.

Review

A grisly tale about the awfully corrupting and degrading power of money.   Du Pont arranges for Mark to visit him and Mark isn’t sure whether he’s won the lottery or got the poisoned chalice, anyone could have told him it would be the latter.   He is inarticulate and malleable.  Wrestling training with a dummy wrestler looks like sex with an unresponsive blow up doll.  Du Pont’s  hold over Mark becomes sadistic and humiliating and we are left in little doubt as to the sexual nature of their relationship.  Du Pont is a petulant, mother dominated, weird case (like Norman Bates with money).  He’s Howard Hughes weird (he collects train sets, which is OK but if it’s only a hobby?).  He’s given to violent outbursts at any perceived thwarting of his will.  Steve Carrell is unrecognizable as du Pont with his prosthetic nose, wheedling voice and weight gain.  The rest of the cast must have got through a lot of junk food to put on so much weight.  Du Pont’s money makes pathetic yes men out of even the most decent people who have become a rich man’s toys.  Du Pont sets brother against brother.  His own efforts at wrestling are laughably inadequate but like Caligula he must win prizes.  He calls himself  “Eagle” and runs his pampered team like a harem master.  This is the solipistic insanity of wealth, like Orson Welles in Citizen Kane forcing his wife to sing beyond her abilities, du Pont is a claustrophobic Xanadu.  This movie avoids the feel-good overcoming of obstacles that you get in most skill aspirational stories, in the end du Pont tips over into violence.  His stern mother is unimpressed.

Earlier in the story Foxcatcher is more patiently observed of wrestling, and of the psychological dynamics of two heavily built men trying to out-muscle each other.  In this respect it avoids the spectacular sadomasochistic circus of Micky O’Rourke’s film on this subject.  Draws you in, and pins you to the ground.

 
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Posted by on January 23, 2015 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Interstellar

Interstellar film posterSynopsis

Starring Matthew McConaughey as Cooper, a NASA trained astronaut and engineer who lives in a near future world of poverty, food shortages, and urban deterioration.  His daughter (Jennifer Chastain is her as an adult) has the makings of a top scientist. Cooper lives with his family and grandfather John Lithgow.  Educational priorities are about survival so Cooper’s son is to be a farmer not an engineer.  Cooper and his daughter come upon the NASA base where Cooper is asked to pioneer through a worm hole in Saturn’s orbit. He and his crew must reach habitable planets in other star systems with a view to their colonnnization.  He travels in space with Amelia (Anne Hathaway) daughter of NASA scientist Michael Caine.  They visit a planet where Matt Damon is marooned.  Does Cooper get beyond the black hole back to Saturn’s orbit, what then?

Review

One thinks of Kubrick’s 2001, the eco concerns of Silent Running, and Contact.  The links with Contact are that McConaughey played the priest, not the astronaut, in that film by Carl Sagan who originated the fictional idea of travel by wormhole.  The visionary optimism of 2001 is replaced here with a sombre desperation, space exploration is no longer about wisdom and knowledge but about survival.  Indeed, on Earth the authorities do not even acknowledge the reality of the moon landings, preferring to dismiss them as Cold War fakes.  NASA must act clandestinely.  Interstellar has lost hope in humanity’s ability to save its ravaged planet, so running away seems the best option.  Hi-tech interiors at NASA, and in space, are not gloomy but dirty and shabby.  There is marvellous visual poetry in the scenes over Earth and around Saturn (in the book of 2001 the stargate is in one of Saturn’s moons, in the film it’s from Jupiter).  Nolan here shows his fascination with the turning upside down of urbanscapes, in the space station the streets whirl in a vast merry-go-round like in Inception.  From his Batman film Nolan has brought in Michael Caine, now a professor.  Jessica Chastain as Cooper’s genius daughter does a lot of emotional gurning.  She’s a bright scientist who leap frogs over blackboard theory with messianic intuitions.  Running around in maize fields she must have felt she was stranded again in Terence Mallick’s Tree of Life.  Whenever a film shows us a lot of maize fields we know this is an American dream land, here is the pioneering spirit, great truths revealed by Mum and Dad, the heart of American enterprise.  Family crisis means scenes of universal significance.

The dialogue often tells us what the film should show.  We get lots of junior school science with all the explanatory power of Superman comics when people tell each other things they must already know.  They talk about extra dimensions like earnest and easily confused hippies. The robot is a dark glass box going for a walk.  Its manner is agreeably witty (unlike the precious Hal of 2001 or the cute R2D2 of Star Wars).  The scenes on the planets show a giant oceanic wave on one, and frozen clouds and mountains on another, complete with a pissed-off Matt Damon trying to get back to earth.  The music is of a metronomically mesmeric kind we’ve come to expect of space dockings and so on.  Always watchable but the script needed sharpening.

 
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Posted by on January 15, 2015 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game film posterSynopsis

About the Bletchley Park code breakers of the German Enigma machine.  Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the master code breaker.  He is gay and had a relationship with a school mate Christopher after whom he calls his machine.  It’s about his fraught relationship with his superiors Denniston (Charles Dance) and Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong) of MI6, and with his colleagues Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) and Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode).  At one point Turing’s suspected of being a Soviet spy.  We jump in time from schooldays (1928) to Manchester (1951) when the police inspector (Rory Kinnear) visits Turing’s home after suspected gay relationships (then a criminal offence).  The inspector also hints at the Soviet spy angle. Turing has to accept medication in order to avoid prison, with tragic consequences.

Review

We’ve had a few films about this subject.  I haven’t seen the others but this film tells us that Turing and his team, if they didn’t win the war against Nazism, they certainly shortened it and saved 14 million lives (how do we know this?).  The efforts of the code breaker Tommy Flowers go unacknowledged, as does the contribution of the Russian army and American resources in bring Nazism down.  Naturally we get fancy accents and everyone being very British and easily embarrassed, except for the licensed tantrums of Alan Turing. This film has its toenail curling Attenborough moments: the understated epiphanies where characters say “Gosh, we’ve defeated Hitler”, the set piece emotional outbursts before the big breakthrough, the awestruck reverence before genius at work.  This ties in with the ‘curse of Richard Curtis’, twee Britishness juxtaposed with momentous events, the loving attention given to an Arthur Mee conservative Britain, the clues of future greatness, the suppressed emotions in khaki and tweeds, and the ‘Ovaltine’ and ‘Hovis’ uniforms all the extras wear.  Like all these sorts of bio-pics about clever people, we have to work out the impact of their genius on their psychology (usually simplified to frustration and cathartic workouts). Ranges of emotion are compressed to lovable foibles. Like with Amadeus, genius opposed by resentful authority in the person of Denniston (Charles Dance) who tries to undermine the brainy upstart all the way.  Mark Strong is superb as Stewart Menzies of MI6 who is all suave sophistication against Turing’s unworldly autism.  Strong can hold a scene on his own, exuding authority with minimal effort.  Keira Knightly plays Joan Clarke battling the sexism that preceded our own supposedly sexist free era.  It’s no challenge for Cumberbatch to play the stroppy genius, but he is moving as a hunted and tortured Turing at the end. 

The code breaking machine itself looks like an oversized Gothic coffee machine  designed by H.G. Welles.  I thought of Star Trek’s Captain Kirk in a spoof scene, as he wondered why the yellow lights didn’t flash in time with the green lights and why can’t Scottie use his spanner?  We have the usual substitutes for showing us brain work: portentousness mixed with hokey sentiment as the camera moves in on the breakthrough moment.  The tragedy of Turing’s chemical castration is skirted round with a ‘Cluedo’ detective story in 1950’s Manchester.  Imitation Game does not break any moulds.

 

 

 
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Posted by on January 14, 2015 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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The Homesman

The Homesman film posterSynopsis

Co-writer Tommy Lee Jones plays George Briggs in Glendon Swarthout’s novel The Homesman.  Three women are driven mad by prairie life.  Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is taking them from Nebraska to Iowa in the 1850s to be looked after by the church in the east.  On the way she rescues Briggs who has been left to be lynched after being worsted over a land claim.  Briggs and Cuddy must nurse the women, ward off Pawnee warriors, deal with a thief, get lost, and suffer the cold weather.   **SPOILER ALERT**  They come across a hotel where the proprietor refuses to feed the hungry travellers.  Briggs meets up with Meryl Streep as the preacher’s wife.

Review

Hilary Swank is brilliant in this film.  The men compare unfavourably with her resolution and intelligence.  She wants marriage not for a meeting of minds, but to combat prairie isolation and privation.  She is strong willed and resourceful.  She is told she is plain by a muppet of a farmer, and by Briggs who has a face like boiled leather. Jones has promoted this as a western with a feminist agenda but this is not convincing, given that he does all the usual male things: he fights, he confronts the Pawnee, he bosses people, and plays the suppressed emotions card to his own convenience.  **SPOILER  ALERT**  Cuddy gets him to sleep with her and then hangs herself leaving him to transport the women.  Later they come to a bizarre hotel in the middle of nowhere.  The Irish owner refuses food so Briggs torches the hotel.  For me, this is a parable about the xenophobic greed the rich world shows to immigrants.

The film’s gaze on the landscape is unflinching as it monumentalizes the protagonists into appropriately mythic poses: either resigned. stoicism, or stony determination.  The landscape is stunning, its golds and ochres dusting and fossilizing anything insolent enough to interrupt the prairie’s emptiness.  The wood of the transport wagon, the textiles, and the horse leathers seem to be sculpted out of the barrenness all around.  The interiors behind walls of crude mud brick are lit up like paintings held against it.  The wagon itself creaks along like a boat over a sea of dust and yellow candlelight grass. The exposure to the vastness of the plains, with its threat of storms and tornadoes and predatory people, must have unsettled even the toughest of pioneers.  John Lithgow plays a preacher, and when he makes a speech in church before Cuddy’s journey it has the same pioneering exhortation as Orson Welles’ sermon blessing the Pequod’s impending voyage in Moby Dick.  Excellent.

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Posted by on January 14, 2015 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 film posterSynopsis

Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is with the underground rebel movement and is being designed as its leader.  Julianne Moore  is the rebel president.  Alma Coin (Donald Sutherland) is her foe, President Snow of Capitol.  Both rebel and Capitol forces attack each other. Katniss invents the mockingjay song as the anthem of revolution.  Her friend Peeta from Catching Fire has been brainwashed by the government and he is interviewed by impresario Stanley Tucci.  The rebels cut off Capitol’s power and infiltrate it.  Will they rescue Peeta?

Review

The first book of Hunger Games has been split in two as the franchise takes its cue from the Harry Potter gravy train.  Mockingjay appears to have jettisoned the futurism of the previous films, as decadent nabobs have scrapped the make up for the born again puritan look in boiler suits, and Katniss has settled for teen war chic as (rather approprietely with ironic intentions as to the power of film) she engages in a media image as well as an arms war.  Our heroes stroll through the war rubble like world-redeeming rock stars, posing against disaster backdrops as if telling us this is what’s happening right now in some parts of the world.  Jennifer Lawrence is a pretty good teen hero model. She has the charisma and the face for it, she is a sci-fi messiah as a feminist riposte to Paul in Dune.  The film is going for contemporary relevance not just regarding the horrors of war but also enviromental disaster.  Julianne Moore is icily effective as the iron-like president, as she and her team create a charismatic role for Katniss.  This, for me, is a canny self acknowledgement of Mockingjay’s own merchandizing power as a franchise, as it fosters luvvie delusions about being spokespersons for the world.  It appears to be distancing itself from the other teen franchises too, as it tries to be a thinking person’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Why Katniss would love someone as feeble as Peeta is a mystery since she is superior in every way.  There is an inescapable aura of sadness in this film because of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death..

 

 

 
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Posted by on January 14, 2015 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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