Category Archives: All-time favourites

Great Expectations

Great Expectations


From the Dickens story about the coming into fortune of Pip a blacksmith’s apprentice, Magwitch his benefactor, and Estella the love of his life.


The film with all others must be compared is David Lean’s 1946 Great Expectations.  That film is in black and white and is threaded with exciting cliff hangers and is reputed to capture Dicken’s spirit;  after all his novels were initially serialised and illustrated in newspapers.  The Lean film is exhuberant and unconcerned with the perils of editing.  This latest film follows on from last year’s BBC adaptation of Great Expectations which starred Gillian Anderson as Miss Haversham.  In this film Miss Haversham is played by Helena Bonham Carter who looks like she’s auditioning for an old rock music video.  I’m not sure that Helena Bonham Carter’s twitchiness is apt for this role.  There is great story in Haversham’s ritual of grief and revenge, here we just get a film set trying to approximate to our conventional imaginings from the book, there’s no attempt to get beyond the almost pantomimic familiarities.  She looks like she’s gurning for one of her partner’s films, let’s say Tim Burton’s “The Mad Bride”.

Pip himself is a snob, the fact that it’s easy to understand his social climbing nastiness does not mitigate the offence.  John Mills in the Lean film allows Pip a certain redemption, his gentlemanly conscience subsequently bothers him as he later treats Joe Gargery properly whereas Jeremy Irvine as Pip merely changes his attitude to Gargery because changed circumstances compel a minimal decency.

This latest Great Expectations is populated with actors who try to outdo each other in Victorian weirdness, which is more frenetic than imaginative. Estella also goes through the well worn routines we know from other adaptations, it’s as if she is merely trying to get a bit ahead of us reading the lines for her.  Robbie Coltrane plays Jaggers the lawyer, his lawyer’s office has none of the dense weirdness that Lean’s black and white film showed us.  Minor characters seem to have more freedom than in previous versions.  Sally Hawkins relishes playing the brutalized termagant trapped with the simple Gargery, she lashes out in quotidian frustration (admittedly this is not a demanding role). Jason Flemyng  as Joe Gargery is a bit more complicated than the holy fool played by Leans’ Bernard Miles, he rejects Jagger’s offer of payment for Pip with wounded pride.

The famous graveyard scene in Lean’s film is impossible to beat, the wind bleakly dramatizes the black and whites as Pip gets into a Wordsworthian terror about the surroundings marshlands.  It reminds me of that scene in The Prelude when young Wordsworth steals a boat and his guilt becomes a threatening mountain.  In this latest film this scene looks like museum workers dressing up for a picnic.


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Posted by on December 30, 2012 in All-time favourites, Film Reviews


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Cosmopolis posterSynopsis

Don DeLillo’s novella from 2003 Cosmopolis is directed by David Cronenberg.  Robert Pattinson plays a Wall Street trader called Eric Packer, he gets into a stretch limo to go across Manhattan to get a hair cut.  His bodyguard tells him about threats to his life and to that of the President.  Juliette Binoche has sex with him in his car, Samantha Morton gets in and talks, then a black friend tells him about an Islamic rapper whose funeral is passing by.  Packer meets his wife in a library and in a cafe where demonstrators fling rats at the customers (rats are spoken of as units of currency).  Packer speaks of buying a Rothko gallery, he shoots his bodyguard and ends up having a long dialogue with Paul Giamatti’s disgruntled employee who wants to kill Packer…


A film critic has noted the similarities between Cosmopolis and The Swimmer (which I have reviewed).  In The Swimmer Burt Lancaster plays an American man of success whose journey through swimming pools leads to misery and despair, an effective parable on Vietnam.  Cosmopolis is different from The Swimmer insofar as Packer (unlike Lancaster) does not start out with any illusions.  Packer is a multi millionaire nihilist who looks as if he wants some sort of closure as he intends to travel to an old seedy hairdressers New York.  Lancaster in The Swimmer never expected to end up in squalor.  People Packer meet do not disillusion him, they and he exchange observations on the nature of money, sex, time, and death.  Packer seems unconcerned that his car is graffitied by protesters, he is not even fazed by being attacked.

Packer and his guests talk elliptically, allusively, and sometimes philosophically.  Now and again it can sound like pretentious waffle, full of cod wisdom about capitalism’s cannibalistic tendencies, about the nullity of wealth, about the meaning of desire for wealth and the futility of individual protest.  Although the film is suposed to be about the present (written just before the credit crunch) it does seem more futurist.  The limo glides around a New York that seems to have more in common with Blade Runner and even I Robot.  When they pass an Islamic funeral cortege in which a rapper’s hearse is accompanied by Dervishes, one thinks of the ethnic mixture of Blade Runner.  The decadence of the wealth/poverty juxtaposition reminds us of the cliche of dystopia:  of the unrealizability of perfection and the illusions of Utopia.  Packer gets out of his gilded limo to wander in a world of poverty and chaos.  When he talks to the Giamatti character, they speak in a broken down block of flats fit for Samuel Becket dialogue.  Giamatti turns the cliche of the disgruntled victim of corporate hubris into a theological tortured mystic.  Packer himself is a mixture of Citizen Kane (we wonder if his haircut is a kind of “Rosebud” quest, a sort of metonym of a lost paradise), The Man who Fell to Earth, and Howard Hughes (like Hughes, Packer is the beneficiary of obsessive medical check ups).  Comparisons with Gordon Gekko of Wall Street are misplaced, Packer has no time for the childish tripe of “greed is good”.  Packer is bemused by his own power, how he can buy not just a Rothko, but a whole gallery of his paintings.  Possession of a Rothko is of course a status symbol of wealth, the abstract expressionist dark chambers of this suicidal painter seem a perfect backdrop for the morbidity of unaccountable riches.

The car journey is that of the soul immersed in the degradations of capitalist commodification.  This suits David Cronenberg’s concerns, he has made for example Naked Lunch and The Fly where reality has been violently subverted to a deranged visionary project, in Cosmopolis capitalism does this.  The dialogue would repay a couple more visits to this film.  Pattinson acquits himself well as an anti-hero, bland and in love with death, in this superb moral fable about capitalism.


Posted by on June 20, 2012 in All-time favourites, Film Reviews


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The Descendants

The Descendants posterSynopsis

Set in present day Hawaii starring George Clooney as Matt, a lawyer whose wife is in a coma after a boating accident.  He wants to be with his daughters to await the outcome of his wife’s accident.  His older daughter is accompanied by her boyfriend who has had a recent bereavement.  His older daughter tells him his wife had had an affair with Brian Spears.  Matt has some unspoilt land in trust and he will sell it to rake in a fortune, Spears, he learns, will be involved in the business deal.  He wants to confront Spears and tell him about his wife’s condition.  Will Spears visit her?  Matt and his family visit his wife Elizabeth and await the doctor’s verdict.  Will Matt sign away the land?


When I was young we got Hawaii Five O on TV, a cop series.  The music was brash and local Hawiian culture was acknowledged in an offhand and touristy way.  Half a century later we get ecological sensitivity and cultural diversity in the guardianship of Matt the patron saint of liberal chic and right-on rhetoric.  The US takeover of Hawaii was of course colonialist and although he has some indigenous Hawiian  ancestry, we realize that Matt is effectively a beneficiary of colonialist theft.  He stresses that the land is in trust to his family but he can make millions of dollars out of it, it’s his to dispose of.  Matt reminds us in voice over that Hawaii is no paradise but shares the same problems as the rest of the world, as if we needed to be told that  This introducing us to the wise guy commentator whose observations about quirkiness are meant to be hilarious, not so in The Descendants.  This film seems to share similarities with Little Miss Sunshine and Juno but lacks the wit and comic inventiveness of those films.  Alexander Payne directed this and it reminds me of his other unlovely look at middle class, middle aged, male, self pity about the wine boozers in Sideways (2004).  Considering the things he goes through in this story Matt seems remarkably unchanged, we get Clooney’s same smug one-expression-that-fits-all-occasions at the end as at the beginning.  I could be missing something here but to me Clooney exploits his easy on the eye appearance to keep you waiting for some intelligent riposte, but you often get a banal remark.  Juno and Little Miss Sunshine benefit from quirky characters caught in comical situations often based on incongruities of appearance, manner, and intention with the surrounding social contexts but Matt’s character is always in charge, his wounded vanity guilt-tripping the man who cuckolded him.  There is no room for comic misunderstandings.  The lad is mildly amusing, he gets a whack on the face from Elizabeth’s father who blames Matt for not giving his daughter the money for a better life.  This guy is avaricious and unlikeable.  The wronged wife commiserates with Matt in the hospital, and the over all tone is sentimental.  Matt gets a chance to save the unspoilt land in the face of pressure from his avaricious family (especially Beau Bridges).

None of the characters are likeable.  The two daughters are motor-mouthed attitudes and it’s not heartwarming.  An unlikeable and unpleasant film

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Posted by on February 16, 2012 in All-time favourites, Film Reviews


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The Elephant Man

The Elephant Man posterSynopsis

About the hideously deformed John Merricks in late Victorian London.  A doctor (Anthony Hopkins) rescues him from a freak’s circus and looks after him in hospital.  It’s about Merrick’s star status in Victorian society after being an exhibit for medical science.  He is abducted by drunks and low lifes then he is recaptured by his circus owner.  He escapes from this into Hopkin’s care.


This is a David Lynch film (made in 1980) and it continues the style of Eraserhead, a film in black and white like the Elephant Man, in which an odd looking guy dreams he’s pregnant and is then devoured.  Lynch at this period, is obviously interested, in a paranoid and puritanical way, with the potential of the body for prudish alienation, decaying in disgustingness. His view of John Merrick (who was really called Joseph Merrick) seems as dubiously voyeuristic and as pornographically intrusive as the horrified viewers of his deformity at the time.  Lynch then seems to draw back and hold Merrick’s condition as a mirror to the equally horrific moral and psychological condition of the Victorian world with it’s prurient self repression, it’s violent sentimentality and its fear of self exposure.  Victorian funereal obsession with ‘oddity’, death, and suffering is graphically illustrated in stygian tones, it puts you in mind of Blake’s lithographs.  It has a mythological power in the smoking mills and the human bodies in the factory tortured by industry.  John Hurt under all that latex, puts on a great performance.  I only occasionally got distracted and thought of a Star Trek ‘Varengian’ with a melted head.  Lynch’s possible self-dislike seems to spare no-one else.  Anthony Hopkins is the doctor who rescues Merrick but Hopkins is more about maudlin self love than self effacing goodness, his ambivalence over his motivations offers only a possible redemption.  He is the hero of unctuousness we have sanctified in our own era’s humourless and paranoid therapy culture.  It makes you long for the inept gaffes of a Ricky Gervaise.  Initially anyway, this doctor exploits Merrick as much as Merrick’s circus owner, played by Freddie Jones as an avaricious, exploitative brute.  Actually this is myth, the real Merrick was never owned by a circus sadist, it seems he was a shrewd businessman who made money out of his condition.  Hopkins is a surgeon, out to make a name for himself so he exploits Merrick for his scientific self advancement.  His academic audience might be more educated than that of the circus but there is still the gratified and horrified stare at Merrick.  Furthermore, Hopkins ensures that ‘polite’ society comes to peer at this Victorian Quasimodo but of course, what they are really doing is admiring their capacity for sentimental condescension towards Merrick.  Lynch leaves us in no doubt of this. They then congratulate their self-sanctifying attitudes in the tortuously self deceptive ways familiar in more benign forms of racism.

Anne Bancroft’s Lilly Langtryish actor, who patronizes Merrick, is hilariously lacking in self knowledge on this point.  Lynch means us to find her superficial.  Merrick is treated as an unfortunate ‘noble savage’ later abducted by the usual hackneyed caste of disreputables, cockney prostitutes, and pub crawling brutes.  When Merrick ends up in the circus, Lynch reminds us of the role of spectacle in Victorian society and how Merrick is punished for the shame and embarrassment he causes in his audience, who become Heironymus Bosch monsters when they’re mobbing him.  From Bergman through to Paul Newman’s 1976 Buffalo Bill film, the travelling circus seems an appropriate backdrop for an outsiders view of social sickness and so it is here Merrick’s fellow unfortunates release him from the circus cage and he finds his way back to Hopkins and his hospital.

The film haunts with dark and claustrophobic places like curtains drawn over guilty secrets in a dark room.  A masterpiece.


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