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?


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.


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 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?


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 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?


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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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.


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 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.


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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