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Category Archives: Out on DVD

A Field in England

A Field in England film posterSynopsis

By Kill List Bill Wheatley and written by Amy Jump, set in 17th century civil war England in a field near a battle.  A group of deserters end up looking for treasure at the instigation of O’Neil (Michael Smiley).  The scholar Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) is supposed to arrest O’Neil but becomes his slave.  There are other accomplices, Cutter (Ryan Pope), Jacob (Richard Fernando)  and Friend (Richard Glover).  They eat mushrooms and have psychedelic visions.  They turn on each other, are there any survivors…?

Review

This has been released in cinema, on DVD, video on demand, and on fee TV.  I can remember black and white films in the 60s and 70s about such subjects as the Battle of Culloden and civil war conflicts.  These were given a documentary, earthy style and there is something of this in the black and white A Field in England.  It’s a bit like an old agit prop production which nevertheless doesn’t really get political, there don’t appear to be any Levellers, Diggers or Ranters in this.  As if to take their cue from Thomas Hobbs “life is nasty, brutish and short” and from Roundhead and Cavalier conflict in the civil war.  Films set in the 17th century are usually populated by effete dandies (Cavaliers) or very rough peasants (Roundheads). Here we only get rough peasants.  The one character approximating to be a ‘gentleman’ is the very nasty O’Neil, he is like some fanatic out of Miller’s The Crucible.  There are no witches in this, but the characters do like magic mushrooms and we get hallucinatory images in black and white (which is more effective than colour would be).  There is an expanding black sun, the characters strike weirdly expressionist poses in tableaux, and there is stop and start camera work.  It’s all rather experimental, often to the point of being wilfully obscure.  The characters say elliptical things to each other.  In a mercifully straight forward moment, one character speaks of the earth being turned upside down, this is a reference to a Christopher Hill book on the civil war.  Wheatley’s intention is to emphasize showing rather than exposition, too many historical dramas tame the strangeness of the past by explaining it whereas if we were really dropped into a 17th century field we would probably be baffled by what’s going on.  There is a good point to this but it can look like as excuse for rambling incoherence in place of any narrative push.  At one stage Whitehead is inside a tent where O’Neil is doing something unspeakable to him as we hear Whitehead’s screams.  Then Whitehead staggers out of the tent and has a leash round his neck.  The other men start digging a hole for O’Neil as if to look for treasure, his hold over these men is like that of Musa (the devil) in Jim Crace’s Quarantine.  Occasionally it almost tips into self parody, like a Monty Python history sketch or a 1970s TV commercial for cider.  It’s like watching the Sealed Knot (which involves English guys dressing up in civil war costumes to re-enact battles) acting bits of Equus or Wickerman.  It also looks like those awful TV ghost stories from the 70s.  For all these caveats it’s certainly an original and energetic film.

 

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Prospero’s Books

Prospero's books DVDReview

Peter Greenaway’s interpretation of The Tempest.  The title comes from the central motif of the film: the wealth of the knowledge contained in the books is the real key to power.  It’s a Renaissance pantechnicon impressarioed by Prospero’s vindictive id.  Gielgud’s Prospero aspires to be a scholar disinterestedly pursuing knowledge for its own sake but the books are a gateway to an unleashed imagination which can work for either evil or good.  Greenaway’s film is set in a panoptic pleasure dome elaborating its artifice for the purposes of cruel manipulation.  He stylizes the acting within the sets as if he’s trying out tones of voice and body posture.  The effect is a masque moving in real time and we are spectators at this baroque court of historical and surreal pastiche.  The superimposed voices and silent acting are mimes echoing into each other.  In The Tempest there is off-stage conspiracy and this then quickens the tempo, as if Prospero’s theatrical manipulation suffers the outrage of a competing vision hence his anger with Caliban.  In Prospero’s Books Caliban mimes as if he’s the dark side of Prospero but his vitality defies the stilted postures of all the other characters so for me he is the most sympathetic character.  Ariel is all Palestrina castrati and fake cherubs.  This emphasizes the decadence of magic used for caprice and personal power rather than for enhancement of life.  Prospero’s progress through his Neronic court over parquet floors is accompanied by the metronomic music of Philip Glass.  Miranda is just another spoilt and gilded menagerie exhibit.  The Milanese  courtiers wear grossly exaggerated Rembrandt clothes and this enhances the artificiality of their life-denying corruption stranded in Prospero’s Renaissance prison; they are clowns awaiting his vengeance.  Prospero has shown  himself to be little better because his revenge is aesthetic and cruelly elaborate, as if to emphasize Nietzshe’s point that art and cruelty serve each other.  Not only Trinculo and Stephano but all characters are stilted or dumbly statuesque in comparison with Caliban’s graceful dancing.  Amazingly original.

 
 

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The Painted Veil

The Painted Veil film posterSynopsis

Based on Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel.  Naomi Watts plays Kitty who marries Edward Norton’s Walter who is a bacteriologist.  It’s the early 1920s and they go off to China.  Watts has a brief affair with Liev Schreiber then goes off to her posting where Toby Jones plays Waddington, the British consul.  The Norton-Watt’s relationship is divorce material but they learn love and respect through life and work.  She gets into voluntary work and Norton tries to eliminate cholera, winning over an initially sceptical army officer.  It ends tragically.

Criticism

This is a familiar story featuring Victorian morality against the forces of love, sex, and work.  Norton at least has a purpose in his Chinese posting, whereas Watts is required to be decorative and bored.  She finds redemptive purpose in voluntary work (helping the nuns in the local school).  Norton is righteously unforgiving towards Watts for ‘betraying’ him but eventually respects Watts’ striving for authenticity and purpose.  The characters are familiar from ‘colonial’ dramas, there is comical disparity between the emotional repression expected of Brits abroad and their real sexual and psychological needs.  Toby Jones seems to be the precursor of Graham Greene exiles in British imperial ennui, world weary as they are a sympathetic source of wise advice and emotional counsel.  Their faces are mask-poised over the anticipated emotional revelations.

The Chinese themselves are from familiar casting: the no-nonsense grandmother, the cooperative orphans, the resentful officer contemptuous of imperialist foreigners, the stoical death scenes, the competing values of British noblesse oblige and Chinese endurance in the ‘bitter sea’ of China, the suspicious questioning of the foreign’s motives.

The rural scenes invite lyricism: the vivid green grass, the beehive mountains, the shot of dense colour through silk, the contemplative lingering over the portentous juxtaposed with the unexpectedly beautiful.  The acting always holds the attention. Quite absorbing.

 
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Posted by on October 28, 2012 in Film Reviews, Out on DVD

 

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Antichrist

Antichrist posterSynopsis

A couple called He and She make love soundtracked by Handel whilst their child climbs out of his cot to fall to his death from an open window.  He (Dafoe) is a therapist who tries to help Her (Gainsbourg) in her grief.  They go to ‘Eden’ in the countryside in a forest.  She describes a sort of dream vision of her walking through a ghosterized forest.  They are assaulted by falling acorns, there’s a talking fox, a pregnant deer, a mad jackdaw, human body parts in trees.  She is into the study of ‘gynocide’ about the male war on women and how male imputed evil is actually the evil of nature, which is Satan’s theatre.  She gets increasingly wild, bolts Dafoe’s leg with a screw clamp, bashes him with a spade, cuts off her clitoris.  He kills her and comes across a crowd of forest pilgrims walking past him, once again that Handel song.

Criticism

Initially I was ready to slag this off.  The whole thing looks like a pretentious scam, a non film with do-it-yourself symbolism devised by a prankster contemptuous of his audience..  The film looks like Equus as written by Steven King or D.H. Lawrence as a Halloween stunt.  Is it satire on torture porn?  If so, I wanted to dismiss it as fake satire because it’s complicit in the vileness it ridicules.  The relationship between He and She is partlly intellectualized and partly magazine supplement mystical.  Occasionally they are pithy and their eroticism electrifies their corny forays into B horror movie concerns:  feminist witchcraft, demonology, astrology (constellations are ‘Grief’, ‘Despair’, and ‘Pain’).  Gainsbourg doesn’t have the technique to convey true menace or dark passions, she comes over all RADA trained and squeaky, like a convent-educated debutante self consciously screaming Lawrentian lust in the bathroom.  The talking fox is silly and made me think of Basil Brush.  The violence is sickening.  At Cannes Lars von Trier no doubt enjoyed the publicity that predictable condemnation brought.  Is this a film at all?  Is it a series of happenings from the depressive mind of a mentally ill-film maker?

After saying all this, I have come to think this is an outstanding film.  It’s like a narrative from a romantic author discovering nature after the buttoned up Rococo era.  One critic compared it to Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, but I think Christabel would be more apt.  Its depiction of nature is like the forest in Company of Wolves or the witchiness of Blair Witch Project and the menace of The Village.  In this nature humanity is at least a mysterious and threatening presence.  Nature is here on its own terms as a bloody and chaotic wilderness.  The forest is menacing like in a Grimm fairy tale without von Trier having to rely on the tired tricks of mainstream cinema.  It’s do it yourself symbolism, and the fun comes from the boundary between image and symbol, they each seem to merge then separate.  Occasionally the film weakens into the self consciousness that comments on what doesn’t need commentary.  As for the accusation of unfair treatment of women,  I disagree in this film.  In Antichrist Gainsbourg is a martyr to her nature, mysticism sanctioned by feminist rebellion against the academic arrogance of her husband.  What Gainsbourg does is to herself, she suffers from a grief that her husband can distance himself from, alienated by his smug attempts at closure.  As for the black and white sex scenes and the accidental death of the child, I think von Trier is parodying the cinematic urge to choreograph life’s horrors and it’s banalities.  Look at those pompous shower scenes Will Smith gets into.

This film for me is more a thinking person’s Steven King:  the remote forest farmhouse is not a place to escape to but a sort of terror of truth seeking.  The forest house offers a violent redemption in self hate and self sacrifice: a rejection of the false security of their urban life.  Fighting with the devil guarantees spiritual honesty better than deluding ourselves with the unacknowledged seeking for power over others that we often sanctify as love and the search for spirituality.

The film is undoubtedly derivative so there’s fun in searching for influences.  There’s Arthur Rackham’s nature vision in those limb sprouting trees, though at first it reminded me of a skin cream commercial.  The falling storm of acorns is like Pan’s Labyrinth.  Scandinavian love of forests turns up in Bergman and Elvira Madigan.  Von Trier depicts not Eden but a failed human attempt to realize it in spite of our sin and guilt.  No one seems concerned about the title, what exactly is the Antichrist?  For Nietsche it’s not satanism but the will power set against the bad faith of religious belittlements.  It’s a celebration of vitality against the self deluding power seeking of religious self denial.  Guilt v blame feed off each other in Antichrist like parts of the forest (natural forces), and so are not religious at all but devouring energies.  Von Trier celebrates the amoral vitality of women freed from male control, their subversive energy is potentially anti-Christian.  We see subliminal shots of a face passing through the greenery then Gainsbourg lies down on the grass and becomes green like the earth, and I think of people archetypically totemized as halloween forest creatures.  The animalization of the male is a lurid phallus spurting blood.  Gainsbourg becomes the spirit of animism fusing with the spirits of the forest against the corrupt fallen rationality of the male psychiatrist.  Trier himself is I think a convert to Catholicism so he will doubtless think that original sin is a domestic problem which we enact in any attempted Eden.

 
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Posted by on October 13, 2011 in Film Reviews, Out on DVD

 

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 posterSynopsis

Ralph Fiennes leads a Capone like committee of baddies who are out to get Harry Potter.  We see H.P. himself at his house and he must escape from Fiennes’ pursuit. Lots of pals assume H.P.’s appearance to throw pursuers off the scent.  H.P., Ron and Hermione  disguise themselves as adults to get into the Ministry of Magic where they take a locket. Then they go from place to place and camp out in a tent  Ron gets jealous and quits, leaving H.P. and Hermione to bond. Then H.P. and Hermione turn up at his parents’ on Christmas Eve and are attacked by a snake. Then they’re in a forest and H.P. gets a sword from a frozen pond and he’s rescued by the returning Ron.  They then chat to a sorcerer in his lonely house who tells a story of three brothers.  Then they’re attacked by Snatchers and taken to H. Bonham Carter’s jail where Dobby rescues them and he’s killed by Helena B.C.  Then R. Fiennes steals Michael Gambons’ wand, and we wait for Part 2.

Criticism

If you try to critcize H.P. you feel like a mosquito trying to topple a brick wall.  There are a few enjoyable scenes:  the tale of the three brothers is done like an Indonesian shadow puppet theatre, it reminds me of Regers’ 1950’s fairy tale silhouettes.  The scene in the forest is quite atmospheric, the Forest of Dean in the middle of winter.  The rest is underwhelming.  The three leads are charisma deficient, prolonged scenes with them are an ordeal.  I watched this with a couple of H.P. fans and they told me that new material has been interpolated, other scenes have been changed from the book.  This is curious, since J.K.R. is known as a control addict, one of the reasons she split Book 7 into two films is to get the details from the book.  It seems the romance between Hermione and Harry threatens to elbow aside any fidelity to the text, not that it’s any great loss.

I think I’ve alluded to this before, but the curious thing about a story dependant on magic is that it can undermine narrative development because it pre-empts conflict and its resolution.  When you know you can always escape a situation, then is there any reason for engagement in the first place?  The scenes are disjointed from an overall incoherence so that they do not achieve the cohesion of successive episodes.  They are more like set pieces embellishing the real interest in the story:  the sexual tension between the three adolescents.  After all, the childhood audience for H.P. has grown up with these three leads so that’s the central concern, isn’t it?  If (like me) you don’t read the books then this film does not stand on its own.  There’s cross referencing and reporting back from the other books but the viewer hasn’t got that luxury if he/she watches this on its own.

Another problem with this and other films is the comfortable familiarity of the scenes.  We either get modern British houses, public school Gothic in Hogwarts (but not in this film though) and a lonely ramshackle house in the middle of a bleak moor, a real forest and the Ministry of Magic entered by toilets.  We get jumps from place to place without any underlying continuum (which we get in the Alice books).  There is rationed visual novelty in each scene and what inventiveness there is, gets repeated in all the films:  the moving paintings and newspaper pictures, the Dr Who hi-tech wands, the oversized python.  There is plenty of gloominess which surrounds the eruption into hi-tech jinks which are merely frenetically extra contextual.  The Ministry of Magic looks like a mixture of a Victorian municipal palace and a posh toilet.  Dobby the elf looks like Vladimir Putin as a garden gnome

What. H.P. can offer is the chance for a well known actor to inject some of their own skill into the scene, and that can be a pleasure, although John Hurt only gets a few minutes.  There’s a real shrewdness and sharpness in some of the group dynamics but it gets spoiled by the three leads dumping their amateur acting across scene after scene.  Finally it’s all too much an expression of Britishness in the naughties, and those limitations will become starker as time goes by.  Arthur Mee with 21st century knowingness.

 
 

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Made in Dagenham

Made in Dagenham posterSynopsis

About the 1968 strike at the Ford factory in Dagenham by women machinists who are declared unskilled labour.  They eventually fight for equal pay with men and they are led by the initially reluctant Sally Hawkins when Geraldine James steps down and accepts her as spokesperson.  The foreman is Bob Hoskins who is sympathetic to the women’s cause because he had to live on his mother’s wages and life was very hard.  They take their dispute to the management and the Michigan bosses find out about the strike and want it stopped.  Hawkins has trouble with her male chauvinist husband as well as with male chauvinist trade unionists and communist party bosses.  Geraldine James’ husband kills himself and this motivates James to join the striking women who make an impression at the TUC. conference, and then meet Barbara Castle who has to deal with American bosses and Harold Wilson.  In the end the women win and the Equal Pay Act comes out in 1970.

Criticism

Watching this film aroused curiosity, nostalgia and embarrassment for me.  Curiosity because this is yet another film dealing with recent history and it shows the same faults as other films with similar ambitions.  It’s as if this takes its cue from soap operas of the time, turning characters into broadbrush caricatures.  Trade unionists and women act like TV- depicted so called ‘ordinary people’.  It’s almost a humorous soap opera parody of working life and betrays the same fascinated misperception that middle class Marxists were hampered with at the time.  We only see working people at moments which reassuringly illustrate their ordinariness: concern with money, sexuality, relationship with bosses and other workers as if there is no life beyond these cosy predictabilities.  We are in Mike Leigh country here, I half expected Timothy Spall or Jim Broadbent to come on, playing sturdy avuncular  figures.  It would have been better to have Ken Loach directing this, though I only have a little more time for Loach than I do for Leigh.  I think they have both made a career out of turning working people into noble savages.  Showbiz perceptions of working people and work at the time came from Coronation Street and Miriam Karlin in a comedy called The Rag Trade.  I worked in a couple of factories just after this 1968 strike and they were nastier places than this film shows.   In Made In Dagenham the factory floor is a sort of performance art industrial theatre where personalities clash in a vaudeville stunt, whereas in reality factories were monotonous.

Sally Hawkins plays a cockney sparrer, a bit like Poppy in Happy Go Lucky.  We see an early example of her bravery when she confronts the maths master who’s into corporal punishment (weren’t they all happy to cane pupils then?  Mine was).  Anyway her inarticulate decency hyperventilates like Billy Budd faced with Claggarts’ vileness.  Then she is the feminist hero confounding the chauvinist insecurities of her boring husband.  She gradually acquires articulate self confidence but it’s all done in a sort of moralistic heartwarming way, beloved of Hollywood.  It’s interesting that striking trade unionists can now be regarded as heroes.  Imagine trying to make such a film in the heyday of the strikes in the late 70s.  Of course, it’s now at a safe distance and we can all shed hypercritical tears for what’s quaint.  Hawkins gains that sentimental male approval beloved of patriarchs with a conscience, and I squirmed.  Rosemund Pike plays the Cambridge educated wife of one of the Ford managers and she develops covert sisterly sympathies with Hawkins.  It’s fascinating to see her suffering the patronizing imbecilities of her husband and it does concentrate the mind on how recent and still prevalent male stupidity was and is.  The problem is that this is all done in a jarringly moralistic way, it’s almost Dickension in its simple sentimentality.  Twenty first century audiences swallow this anodyne morality play and it amazes me.  Then there’s the jarring note of Geraldine James turning up with the strikers after she had pulled out because of her marital miseries with her mentally unwell husband.  It reminds me of the Comic Strip comedy team who did a Hollywood spoof on the miners’ strike.

Bob Hoskins did his usual rent-a-working-class stereotype, he’s been doing it since playing a Cockney soldier in Zulu Dawn.  Hoskins is likeable but too ready with the timely noble sentiment.  He is the cow eyed stalwart shedding a tear at the triumph of the just.

To remind us we are in the 60s we get the usual soundtrack of hits, and of course TV must be in black and white like in Life on Mars.  This film succumbs to the dramatic requirements which insist on cartoonish simplicity.  Miranda Richardson plays Barbara Castle, gets her feistiness quite well.  John Sessions is good as the wearily pragmatic politician who had to keep the Americans happy, he plays Harold Wilson.  Did the women strikers see themselves as pioneering feminists?  The film certainly says so:  Hawkins puts her partner right about his claims to saintliness based on surrendering his lordly rights.

Where are the Marxists, the factory gate paper sellers and agitators?  They’ve been edited out, they’d get in the way of the feel good factor, wouldn’t they?  There is nothing about the wider political context.  The women are wheeled onto the public arena like Pocohontas paraded at the court of King James and the film seems happy with that trivialization..

This movie arouses nostalgia because it exposes, without meaning to, the cruel limitations of trade unionists.  There was no vision beyond a decent striving for any better life than the capitalists would grant.  Not really true to life then but occasionally entertaining and the acting is good.

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Posted by on July 10, 2011 in Film Reviews, Out on DVD

 

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Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now posterSynopsis

Set in Vietnam in the late 60s.  Martin Sheen plays Willard sent on a mission to kill Kurtz (Marlon Brando), an American officer who has turned into a mad mass murderer in the jungle.  Willard is in a patrol boat with a surfer, a pilot, a young soldier, and a would be chef.  On the way they meet Robert Duvall directing gunships onto suspected Vietcong positions but it looks like a massacre of defenceless peasants.  They come onto a concert in the middle of the jungle and they murder Vietnamese on a trading boat, thinking they’ve got weaponry.  Willard reaches Kurtz and meets Dennis Hopper as a photographer who worships Kurtz.

Criticism

This is based on Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness set in the Congo looted by Belgian colonialists.  It has since become a cliche, the dark heart of colonialists in Africa.  Coppola transposes this into the US degradations in Vietnam.  In the 60s and 70s there were plenty of anti-war films and this seems to be anti-war but there are some interesting ambivalences.  Robert Duvall with his helicopter gunships looks like a clownish war criminal but the film lingers over these exploits and sails into a choreography of Wagner’s music and the insane delight in destruction and carnage.  There’s a creepy feeling that though the viewer of course must be repelled by this savagery, still there is some sort of mysticism here which goes beyond our cosy categories.  Why don’t we feel any reservations about violence in thrillers and westerns?

Martin Sheen plays Willard as a cynical commentator who appears to be corrupted by his work.  He is happy to murder a wounded Vietnamese woman and this act undermines his bragging rights in anti-war cynicism, he is surely a part of the militarist evil that he so casually despises.  Willard spends a lot of time speaking in tones of breathy portentousness, rolling his eyes sideways in unconvincing paranoid edginess.  This is supposed to be a dramatic response to the surrounding evil but Sheen’s acting looks like a substitute for real thought, we are meant to think the film engages with great issues of evil but I think it’s into a sort of Nazified chic.

Brando plays Kurt as a mumbling psycho presiding over his jungle killing fields.  He quotes from T.S. Eliot about the Hollow Men.  This is probably a reference to Conrad’s depiction of Kurtz as a human void lacking the psychic wholeness that would enable him to avoid evil.  This is the caricature of the Nietzschean ‘hero’ who is beyond Christian decadence, like Harry Lime in The Third Man.  Apocalypse Now is fascinated with the evil it should deplore.

Dennis Hopper plays that figure we have come to loath – the excitable guy who talks lots of hero worshipping blather, usually to someone who’s just come off a plane or a boat.  It’s the sort of hectic self promotion that allows no response or criticism.  They look like they’re off their heads.  Hopper does this in a film which is set in a killing field in Cambodia, the film was made in 1979.  The truth about Pol Pot’s killing fields was just being made known to the world.  There is a big debate about this but turning massive suffering into any kind of artistry is at best controversial.

The boat crew become increasingly demented, we’re meant to think they succumb to the horrors of war but they become automatons of killing.  Nothing is accountable in Apocalypse and this seems to include Coppola who opts out of judgements.  Willard tells us the would-be chef is not only too tightly wound up for Vietnam but for New Orleans, where he comes from.   There is a surfer who does a bit of surfing (to show the surreal theatricality of war I suppose) then gets into body painting, maybe he’s just read Lord of the Flies.

There is product placement which pioneered the visual stereotyping of Vietnam films:  the brandy, cigarettes, and the music by the Doors.  The film takes us from an Ernst Jung fascination for war (his book Storm Of Steel praised war) rather than All Quiet on the Western Front, and its protest against war, to a jungle-swarmed tourist kitsch depravity.

Visually impressive but some sort of accountable mentality is difficult to find in this film.  A sort of hip appreciation of war.  Probably went down well with backpackers in Bangkok and all places ‘exotic’.

 
 

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