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Monthly Archives: February 2015

Birdman

Birdman film posterSynopsis

Director Iñárritu‘s film starring Michael Keaton (Riggan Thomson) as an actor who was once a star in a ’90s Birdman franchise.  Now he’s on Broadway acting Raymomd Carver’s What we Talk about when we Talk about Love with Edward Norton as Mike Shiner.  It’s about the frantic egotism of putting on this play.  Emma Stone is his ex-druggie daughter.  The hallucinatory appearance of Birdman speaks terse truths to Riggan.  He walks through Broadway in his underpants inadvertently starting a new kind of realistic theatre.  He has Birdman visions.

Review

The camera follows Riggan around, so you feel as if you’ve asked to take part in the hectically claustrophobic self absorption of the characters.  The similarity of Birdman to Keaton’s own Birdman is of course entirely intentional.  The seeming real time ducking and weaving of the camera parodies the hand held breathlessness pioneered by the Blair Witch Project, but here it gets us into dark places as Riggan learns some hard truths about himself both as a neglectful and selfish parent of Sam and as an actor from the aptly named Shiner.  Edward Norton’s Shiner is a perfect mickey take of all those tediously obvious method actors that we first saw playing themselves in beatnik sets in the ’50s, the Lee Strasberg school of actorly self consciousness.  The rapid fire incestuous in-jokes about actors recall the similar smug self regard in Betty Davis All about Eve.  In Birdman the actors are expected to be predatory, vain, arrogant, and abrasive and they don’t disappoint.  In Birdman it’s often difficult to draw the line between parody of theatrical vanity and the transparent celebration of that very vanity.   Keaton’s facial gurning draws on his recent performance in Other Guys, like electrified facetiousness.  Are we supposed to congratulate Keaton on his candid self exposure, or his acting at being self revealing?  For all the actors the film looks like an exercise in self therapy helped by energetic jazz music that gives the whole film an unrehearsed feel.  The camera is as energetic and confrontational as the dialogue, as it expressionistically pans over the theatre, streets, and roof tops. Is being punch drunk from the camera and dialogue the same as any exhausting insight into one’s self or others?  What ever the answer might be, it’s occasionally fun.

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Posted by on February 20, 2015 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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A Most Violent Year

A Most Violent Year film posterSynopsis

1981 is the year when Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) gets into the New York heating oil distribution business, but he wants to do it legitimately.  He inherited his business from his criminal father-in-law.  He makes a deposit on a waterfront deal and has 30 days to close the deal or risk losing it all.  He wants to persuade the District Attorney (David Oyelowo) of his legitimacy, and he must protect his business from violent competitors.  Jessica Chastain plays his business-shrewd wife.  Morales’ employees are afraid since they are in the firing line.  Will Morales’ business survive?

Review

Oscar Isaac looks like Al Pacino (especially when in Scarface), so it comes as a bit of a shock to learn of Morales’ aspirations towards legitimacy, in fact he makes a big deal about it, as if he expects us to congratulate him when he says “I AM NOT A GANGSTER”.  He is goaded into chasing one of the thugs who attacked his employee, he gets rough with him but does not shoot him.  The street and waterfront scenes of New York recall the dour gritty look of the seventies like in Serpico.  The interiors are gloomy and tacky, was 1981 really this grim?   When, as a well dressed businessman, Morales gets out of his car to negotiate with the DA and the police one expects somebody to get shot but it doesn’t happen.  The feel is Sidney Lumet and Scorsese, the waterfront could be On the Waterfront from 1954.  The film is all the more fascinating precisely because it shuns the easy option of violence.  Resorting to guns can be counter productive to the usual pursuit of profit in spite of the numerous “it’s business” excuses for violence in the Godfather and other gangster films.  Morales is trying to maintain self respect as his patriarchal pride is wounded when his wife Anne offers her help in his business problems.  When the DA orders a search of the Morales house it looks like a re-tread of Eliot Ness pursuing Al Capone but Anne makes it look like the hounding of a respectable yuppy household.  The presence of a gun in the house startles because it seems out of place.  Chastain’s Anne looks like Michelle Pfeiffer in Scarface but she is too intelligent to be overawed by the threats inherent in the ropiness of business dealings.  Her father was, after all, a criminal who succeeded through violence.  When there are business meetings we think about the pomposity of Mafia procedure, especially when suspicious recriminations fly about over Morales’ rival,s but no-one comes in waving Capone’s baseball bat.  Excellent.

 

 
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Posted by on February 20, 2015 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything film posterSynopsis

About the cosmologist Stephen Hawking and his early life in Cambridge, and his marriage to Jane Wilde played by Felicity Jones.  He is struck down by motor-neurone disease and how the marriage copes with that.  Jane develops a friendship with a choirmaster and there is eventual separation in the Hawking marriage.  Hawking becomes world famous.

Review

The movie starts out as another stab of the mid 20th century heritage industry courtesy of the Cambridge middle classes: chaps in tweed suits, debutantes and fusty Victorian attitudes all round.  It shows the Britain of Harold McMillan which is a fashionable film obsession these days.  Hawking is the very bright guy who meets arts student Jane, then he in inflicted with motor-neurone disease.  I’m sure the reality of their suffering is worse than what we see in the film.  Eddie Redmayne’s acting makes for uncomfortable watching and I’m not wholly convinced of the case for it to be acted, no matter how good.  The focus of the film does shift towards Jane, who is all self-sacrificing stoicism.  She is patronizingly told that she must be lucky to have him, she must have wondered what kind of luck it is that involves the surrender of her own personality and career.  She forlornly sits in the kitchen trying to write on Spanish poetry when she gets the time.  The domestic tensions are well handled and discreetly British.  Hawking seems at times oblivious of the severity of the demands made on her, so we’re invited to step through a film in which what’s left unsaid tiptoes round his dreadful condition.  The big problem with this movie is the same as that with Beautiful Mind, Imitation Game etc.  Accept the premise that reverence is sanctified envy, then the public’s worship of the elite maths that we can’t understand looks fairly idiotic.  Do we worship it because we can’t understand it?  Come to think of it, we do despise what can be easily understood, don’t we?  The film’s trick is to entangle this sentimentality with the heroism of Hawking’s physical sufferings and they should not be entangled.  No doubt Hawking’s peers argued with his maths but in place of our understanding of it we ask science to answer questions beyond its remit.  The film worships at this shrine and questioning it seems rather churlish.  It’s the science version of Shadowlands about C.S. Lewis and his marriage.

 
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Posted by on February 9, 2015 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Whiplash

Whiplash film posterSynopsis

J.K.Simmons as jazz teacher Fletcher who focuses on a drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) and sadistically torments him into greater achievement.  In doing this Andrew rejects his girlfriend and nearly kills himself in an accident.  Fletcher has caused tragedy for other students and is subject to disciplinary proceedings.  Will Andrew prove himself in the big concert?

Review

J.K.Simmons plays a role reminiscent of the bullying officer in Full Metal Jacket.  His head is all whipcord muscles bulging at the moment of his snake attacks.  This is the opposite of the Blackboard Jungle since in this film it’s the teacher who terrorizes, not the student.  Fletcher’s insults are hilariously colourful as he verbally attacks anything in range.  He indicts Andrew’s parents as losers as he gets nastily personal.  Fletcher’s defence is that he must tease out genius to save the dying art form of jazz.  Charlie Bird Parker’s humiliation and eventual triumph are supposed to make him a role model.  Whiplash makes me feel like one of the uninitiated, I’ve never been able to enthuse about jazz, seems more like music from the head rather than the heart.  This is no 80s feel good dance class for a Patrick Swayze clone, the drummer smashes his fists into blood.  He suffers for his art and and makes sure everyone else suffers as well.  He is prepared to sacrifice happiness and so his girlfriend quite rightly dumps him as the drearily obsessive perfectionist that he is.  All that pain, work, and humiliation and the status of a drummer is still not great!   Apart from his father and girlfriend, nobody comes out of this well.  His fellow musicians are neurotic perfectionists ready to back stab each other.  Whiplash cleverly leaves us wondering whether taking sadistic pains really does lead to greatness or whether it’s just a weaker will succumbing to a stronger one.  This strikes a cord in the inherent puritanism of our work ethic, the snobbery of the superiority of very painful effort.  As cinema audiences we’ve become inured to cartoonish violence and nastiness, this approach to every day professional sadism gives us the thrill of recognition.  There is vicarious entertainment in another’s humiliation, right?

 
 

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Ex-Machina

Ex Machina film posterSynopsis

Alex Garland’s the scriptwriter and director.  Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, a code worker for a software company called Bluebook.  He wins a prize to spend a weekend with Nathan (Oscar Isaac) in the Norwegian mountains.  Caleb is required to interview an A.I. robot Ava (Alicia Vikander) and check on how artificial she is.  What happens among the three of them?

Review

Since The Beach Garland tries to show how the deadly threat of human corruption in any contrived paradise.  I found Ex-Machina very irritating.  Garland is not a scientist so he had to have scientific advice on this and frankly it looks like any nerd’s wet dream.  More than that, it reminded me of a poor man’s version of Sleuth (Shaffer’s observation of social class between  two sparring characters), except that the sparring doesn’t really get started.  Nathan is god like smug in his multimillionaire’s fortress as he tells Caleb he will design Ava.  It’s main resemblance to Sleuth (lacking that play’s wit), is a rich man toying with his creation and employee.  Of course robot creation goes back to Frankenstein, Pygmalion, I Robot, and Bladerunner and in this latter film there is real fun to be had with the essentially non-question of artificial versus human intelligence.  Isn’t it just one of the big myths of our age?  In this and other similar movies it looks like script material for unoriginal movies.  Asimov wanted to take the debate to some pretty esoteric level, but in Garland’s it looks like a nerd’s obsession, a questionable male fantasy with its apparently compliant female robot.  Instead of dramatic dialogue we get juxtapositions of would-be insightful statements.  The film can mention Wittgenstein’s Blue Books all it likes, but it’s a pointless name drop.  Ava herself looks like a plastic battery in the witch Momby’s gallery, she’s on the look out for a good skin graft.  The other female robot is Japanese with all the animation of a zombie.  This is a fifty year old stereotype, the amoral Oriental killing machine beloved of James Bond movies.  When Nathan and the robots break into po-faced dancing, it just made me laugh.  Was this supposed to be an outbreak of spontaneity?

 
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Posted by on February 4, 2015 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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