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The Tempest

Thr Tempest film posterSynopsis

Starring Helen Mirren as Prospera, the female Prospero.  It’s the Shakespearean play about Prospera’s revenge on all the people who have wronged her.  They are cast onto her island. Prospera wants her dukedom back from Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian.  The spirit, Ariel helps.  Miranda, Prospera’s daughter, is betrothed to Ferdinand son of Alonso.  Two seaman Trinculo and Stephano meet Caliban, the momster who saves Prospera.  They plot to overthrow the kingdom of the island.  Justice is done, Prospera will return to Milan and all is well.

Review

In this interpretation the male Prospero becomes the female Prospera but it’s not as if the text can support that!  The male Prospero is unaccountable and controlling and this does not fit well with Prospera who is a supposedly wise mother to Miranda.  I suppose the comparatively trivial fact that a woman would not have ruled a 16th century Milanese dukedom can be put aside but the text needs more for Prospera to work on.  Still it’s a novel idea and Helen Mirren does it with aplomb.  I’m not partial to her voice (sounds as if her jaws are wired together).  Prospera’s relationship with Ariel is a sort of wary equality occasionally imbalanced by the debt that Ariel isn’t allowed to forget.  Ben Wishaw plays Ariel as a special effects wizard, occasional star man and scary harpy.  It’s a sort of rueful parental relationship.  Her daughter, Miranda, is hardly the innocent novice of the play., in this production she looks like she’s competing with Ariel for ‘Androgyne of the Month’.  Caliban is unprepared to accept either Prospera’s benevolent condescension or her hostility that comes from wounded vanity.  He is not so much a noble savage gone wrong, more a sort of hominid performance artist hybrid.  Antonio and Sebastian are suitably weasely.  The pompous Gonzalo is a Polonius clone though Tom Conti tries to make him more likeable.  David Strathairn as Alonso is.  Trinculo and Stephano, played by Russell Brand and Alfred Molina, only have to gurn like failed stand up comedians, and we get irritated with them long before the long suffering Caliban does.

The island itself is unprepossessing  like an Aegean hideaway made of bleak volcanic rock.  At times, it’s like watching Lost in fancy dress, and Prospera is in danger of looking like an eco- tourism guide who specializes in light shows.  Speaking of which, the film’s astrological performance is more inventively spectacular than any attempted visual analogy of an Elizabethan court Masque would be.

 
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Posted by on June 2, 2013 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Even the Rain

Even the Rain posterSynopsis

About a film crew who turn up in Bolivia to make a film about Christopher Columbus arriving in the ‘New World’.  Written by Paul Laverty and directed by Icíar Bollaín.  The film unit recruits from local people, one of them becomes a political activist in the fight against a British American multinational company trying to privatize the local water, this will threaten the very survival of the indigenous Bolivians. The film crew is increasingly drawn into the dispute.  Will the Bolivians get justice?

Criticism

This stars Luis Tosar and Gael García Bernal (who played the young Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries).  These are two film makers driven by the profit agenda, they are insensitive and patronizingly imperious.  Their relationship with the chief agitator is initially crassly insensitive but they are forced to respect the problems of the Bolivians (the dispute really happened).  The big irony at the centre of the film is of course that the film’s bosses replicate the very imperialist arrogance that Columbus and co murderously visited on indigenous peoples.  Tosar and Bernal are manipulative as they self-deludingly suppose that all human decencies can be subordinated to the requirements of their precious cinematic art, just as Columbus suppressed any religious decencies in the pursuit of gold.  There is some debate in the film on the obvious parallels they share with Columbus.  One of the actors plays Las Casas, the monk who eventually turned into the voice of colonialist conscience.  The more cynical among the film crew compare the actor unfavourably with the monk he is playing, they also remind him that though Las Casas defended native Americans he was prepared to use African slaves.  The crew feel that they could justify their own double standards.

As he learns about the plight of the Bolivians, Tosar tries to help out, he grows a conscience in the manner of Ken Loach films where the initially cynical character is drawn into political passions (as if rootlessness and cynicism are pretentious protective devices which we must reject when the politics of survival are paramount).  The Bolivians are not red revolutionaries, they simply fight for the elementary justice that will ensure their own survival.  They fight for their own water, hence the title Even the Rain, which means that even the rain is being taken away from them.

Even the Rain uses vivid images in making its point.  A helicopter airlifts a big wooden cross, the joke is a sacred object turned into a film stunt.  They get local labour to raise the cross, reminding me of the artistic exploitation in Fitzcarraldo where Herzog imitated Fitzcarraldo’s exploitation of local labour in getting Peruvian forest people to drag a steamboat over the jungle.  Extras are asked to drown children, using dolls as props of course, but the extras reject this artistic simulation of horror.  Then there are confrontations in a film studio housing replicas of Columbus’ ships.  This is superbly ironic, the original ships brought Columbus profit and fame but the film ships are stranded in the studio, unused like the film’s project.

Superb.

 
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Posted by on September 5, 2012 in Film Reviews, World cinema

 

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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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The Tree

The Tree posterSynopsis

Starring Charlotte Gainsborough as the wife of a Queensland chap who has a heart attack whilst driving his daughter.  As he dies he crashes his car into the tree next to his house.  The family is of course in bereavement and the daughter thinks her dead father’s spirit lives in the tree.  Gainsborough finds a new romantic interest who offers to cut down the tree after its branches have crashed through the roof of her house.  Gainsborough defends her tree hugging daughter and tells the boyfriend to get lost.  There is a storm and the house is wrecked.  They leave the house.

Criticism

The director is Julie Bertuccelli who worked with Kieslowski on Three Colours.  This could have been a better film but I haven’t read Judy Pascoe’s book from which it is made.  It could have been like The Wickerman but to be fair if you’ve got young kids in the film then you’re a bit restricted in what you can do.  An only adult film could have had Gainsborough making love with the tree or decorating it with strange totems.  She could have cavorted with the evil in nature like she did in Antichrist.  If this had been made by Mallick it would have been called The Tree Of Life and we would have gone off on a cor blimey cosmic trip.  It could have been like Twin Peaks and the tree would be surrounded by Druids.  It could have gone all mystical like Picnic at Hanging Rock.  It turns out to be an averagely decent film about a family coping with a father’s death but it’s not overly subtle on the subject of grief – in fact, Gainsborough squeaks a lot and gives a performance almost as wooden as the tree.  The boyfriend is the usual macho-man with designer stubble, who turns up to lend a manly hand to the women in trouble.  We’ve seen a lot of this kind of guy since that awfully nice designer bloke in Julia Robert’s Sleeping with the Enemy.

As if to lend a more rebellious profile to the family, the neighbours are uptight snobs.  Oddly, the next door house seems to disappear and re-appear throughout the film.  Perhaps Bertuccelli is more interested in mood than in anything as banal as a realistic place.  Queensland itself looks nice, it could be a good advert for the Queensland tourist board.

The girl is a sulky brat and the boyfriend is required to pass the usual tests.  Gainsborough suddenly turns against him and sides with the brat, the poor chap was only trying to help

We get a storm at the end, which of course is supposed to symbolize their reconciliation with dad’s death in a display of meteorological and emotional grief.  All very cathartic.

The film could have developed the symbolic possibilities of the tree but instead this Moreton Bay fig tree looks like it’s in need of a tree surgeon.  Like the tree, the script and acting could have done with some pruning.

 
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Posted by on September 12, 2011 in Film Reviews, Independent films

 

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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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Potiche

Potiche posterSynopsis

Set in 1977 in France, directed by Francoise Ozon.  It’s about the owner of an umbrella factory, Fabrice Luchini playing Robert Pujoi.  His wife is the potiche of the title, a trophy wife played by Catherine Demeuve as Suzanne Pujoi.  They have an idealistic student son played by Jeremie Renier and a daughter played by Judith Godreche.  Robert Pujoi is a tyrannical boss, when he falls ill it gives a chance for the rest of the family to run the factory.  Suzanne contacts an old flame Babin (played by Gerard Depardieu) because there is a strike at the umbrella factory.  Babin is the communist trade union boss and Suzanne feels she can do business with him.  She turns out to be quite successful and Robert Pujoi must fight to get back his ownership of the factory (with the help of daughter and shareholders).  Suzanne then competes with Babin to be mayor of this town in northern France, she wins, and it’s a victory for women.  The trophy wife had had a few lovers and was quite freewheeling and her husband did not know about this.

Criticism

This is of course another chance to tour the 1970s and its retro wallpaper, bad hair and tight clothes.  It seems like a sort of French answer to Made in Dagenham, yet another chance to show an era that’s recently gone, but is in some ways pretty remote.  Like the English film, it’s about characters dealing with an industrial dispute, though it’s more lighthearted than Dagenham.  It does remind you though that in the supposedly liberated era of the late 20th century, French women had, and have, some battles to fight.  Witness the shinanigans in the French government and the sexism that’s still rampant.  Deneuve herself plays a bored wife (we’ve had a great many since Madame Bovary), who realizes ker own talent in the boardroom.  She takes on the primitive sexism of her husband, and then the sentimental self pitying sexism of Banin who once had an affair with her, he thinks her son is his, then is told he might not be.  The movie seems to be saying that, whatever the political posturing of the men, they are all sexist and Suzanne has got the measure of them.  When Babin gets jealous, Suzanne puts him in his place by telling him that he has had his share and should be grateful for that.  Strong independent women existed before Carla Bruni, Sarkozy is only the latest in a world of comical husbands.  Robert Pujoi is a cross between Basil Fawlty and Sarkozy.  He throws tantrums when he’s been crossed and when Suzanne asks for a divorce he becomes a self pitying wreck.  He has been cuckolded by Suzanne and is no match for her self belief.

Suzanne takes on Babin and beats him in the election and this could be the start of a new era of feminist self assertion.  The umbrella factory is a reference to the musical of 1964 called Les Parapluies de Cherbourg which starred Deneuve.  The musical was all singing and no speech, Deneuve revives the spirit of that musical in her election victory.

The politics of workers’ strikes was to come to an end by the 80s.  Margaret Thatcher triumphed over Scargill and the miners.  The limitations of labourism are as obvious here as in Made in Dagenham.  Trade union disputes wanted better treatment and better pay from capitalists, that should not be confused with socialism.  When capitalism changed in the 80s, labourism went into decline.  This movie sharply observes the era of the 70s:  the male trade union negotiators in their leather jackets and walrus moustaches.  Where were the women?  The communist mayor became a familiar and avuncular part of French provincial  life and there was nothing threatening about it, indeed it became quite homely

The light hearted soap opera feel about this film recalls the Brian Rix farces in the theatre ( this actor was famous for losing his trousers in the comedies he acted in).  The details of 70s domestic life also reminded me of Mike Leigh’s Abigails’ Party a play about the horrors of the new affluent vulgarity.  Deneuve lives in a horrifyingly well ordered and affluent house.  The son goes through the routines of idealistic rebellion and later you think he’s a bit camp and maybe he’s got a gay friend, but the film draws back from this.  The daughter is an Abba clone who is status seeking.  The household also reminds me of Fawlty Towers, the male boss is a figure of fun and the women are the real brains.

This is a witty and enjoyable film and its’ characters are just about savvy enough to avoid being completely embarrassing.  Naturally, the silly husband treats his secretary as his plaything and she gets feminist revenge on him.  The one curious lack in this is that all the people are Caucasian, there are no Algerians, Vietnamese, or black Africans.

 
 

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Submarine

Submarine posterSynopsis

A film about an unprepossessing adolescent set in the 1980s in Swansea, directed by Richard Ayoade, from a novel by Joe Dunthorne.  Ben Stiller is involved in it.  It stars Craig Roberts and Oliver Tait, a sharp witted and observant schoolboy (we are given to understand).  He bullies a slightly corpulent girl in order to win over Jordana (Yasmin Paige) who wears a red duffel coat.  She seems to dominate Oliver.  His parents are played by Noah Taylor, who is a marine biologist, and Sally Hawkins, who works in an office.  She is getting bored with hubby and has designs on Paddy Considine who plays a leather clad, would-be mystic .  Oliver has fantasies, he imagines the public grief at his demise.  He poses as a philosopher.  He plays host to Jordana, using boxed wine and prawns and then a candle lit bedroom.  Jordana’s mother has cancer and Jordana rejects Oliver for not visiting her mother in hospital.  In order to get her over her grief for her mother, he tries to poison her dog, thinking that such an action will get her used to grief.

Criticism

This is quite funny for the first half, though you might find your laughter getting self consciously thin.  It’s a coming of age film and I think it’s apposite to list the cliches of this kind of film.  The Graduate has a lot to answer for.

a) The lead character is usually an unprepossessing sulky young man or woman but has one or two supposedly cool confederates.

b) The lead character is usually sexually inept but keeps girlfriend anyway.  If a girl, she is bright and scares boys off.

c)The lead usually makes a great fuss about learning things the rest of us take in our stride.

d) The lead usually has hippy liberal parents into sexual liberation.  They always try to  keep up with fashionable ideas and of course they are shamefully uncool.

e) The parents are usually played by actors like Stan Tucci or Noah Taylor.  Dad is usually a sexual failure and figure of fun.

f) The hero’s house is always clean and his/her parents never seem to work.

g) Freeze frame with titles indicate some moments of comic insight.

h) The voice-over threads relentlessly through the film. There is a tone of.disparagement of teachers and pupils, usually such comments focus on physical quirks or personality deficiencies.

i) Just to get some intellectual credibility, the lead must either read or name drop Friedrich Nietzsche, compulsory for adolescents..

j) So the star has to be a nerdy existentialist.

k) There is posturing with flattering fantasised self image, like Billy Liar.

l) There is some obligatorily silly friend or family relation of the nerdy hero.  They are usually some self deluded uncle or old flame who is so uncool.

m) There is the inevitable heart to heart with Mum or Dad, usually in the bedroom.

n) Somebody manages to be ill or die and this is supposed to be a wake up call.

o) If it’s set in a particular decade there will be anachronisms.

p) There is usually a leitmotif (quirky of course) and this explains the title.

q) There always must be a highly obtrusive soundtrack of guitar twanged ballads of teen angst, usually superfluous to understanding the lead (should you want to).

r) The main characters are always middle class.  Submarine is guilty of a) b) c) e) f) g) h) i) j) k) l) m) n) o) p) q) r) s) t) u) and r).  Oh dear, all of them.

SThe funny bits cannot distract from the film’s obvious lack of originality.  Its precursors go from The Graduate and Here we go round the Mulberry Bush to Adrian Mole and Juno and The Scarlet A.  The last two are by far the best of the lot.  There is the same smug self regard sinking into suffocating  self absorption.  For all the intelligence of the lead in Submarine, he is slow to learn about himself – cliche (c).  Like similar characters, he might be a dark horse to his more alpha-male aspiring school colleagues, but he is often cowardly and snobbish, and of course he gets the girl in the end.  Jordana goes around in a vivid red duffel coat which is of course an uncool article of clothing.  We are meant to think of the midget in Don’t Look Now, she turns round and slashes Donald Sutherland with a knife.  In Submarine someone turns round to him but it is not Jordana.  The coat is visually stunning in a landscape of greys, browns and greens, it’s like a splash of scarlet paint over a grey canvas

There is fashionable amusement with the quirks of other decades.  Oliver invites Jordana to a meal and he has a box of wine on the table and I wonder if that’s more 70s than 80s.  Cliche (l) is embodied in Paddy Considine.  He plays a leather trousered would be mystic, all Allen Partridge insecurity and medallion man gormlessness.  His hairdo is a mullet, he drives a star spangled van straight out of a 1968 rock tour.

The parents responsible for the cliche offences d) e) f) g) m) are Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins.  Noah Taylor looks like the perfect wally dad.  He can be relied on to offer good natured platitudes to the son he is not supposed to understand.  Sally Hawkins has become the face of Mrs Englishwoman for all decades from the debutantes of the 1950s, to Dagenham housewife of the 60s,  to a 21st century manic  optimist.  If she’s not careful, she will be wheeled onto more films to provide comfort for right wing nostalgics.  She is our contemporary answer to Deborah Kerr, the professional Englishwoman.  No doubt Americans lap this sort of thing up.  They love to hear Limmies being clever and humorous, and these sort of glorified TV productions that have been turned into films tend to be well worked rungs up the Hollywood ladder. This would have been better as a shorter TV production.

Occasionally funny but very derivative.

 
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Posted by on June 27, 2011 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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True Grit

True Grit posterSynopsis

A Coen brothers film based on the novel rather than the 1969 film starring John Wayne.  Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfield) is the daughter of a murdered employer of Tom Cheney, so she wants him hanged.  She hires the reluctant Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) whom she meets in the courthouse where he battles with the lawyer trying to get at the truth about a shooting.  She heads out with him into Indian territory (this is 1878) with Leboeuf, a Texas Ranger, played by Matt Damon.  They track down the gang Cheney is with and he is killed.  Mattie loses her arm from a snakebite, Cogburn tries to save her arm, getting her back to civilization as quickly as possible.  We see Mattie at the end of the film finding out about what happened to Cogburn.

Criticism

What’s puzzled me about this film is why some critics have wondered at the point of making it.  It’s a story and films are about stories.  Jeff Bridges is a different Cogburn from Wayne, he drawls inarticulately and seems shrewdly ambivalent later in accompanying Mattie out to the wilderness.  The search and pursue party is a constant of westerns, it’s all about the searchers finding out about themselves through the ordeal of the wilderness.  The setting itself is a harsh snowy landscape, all sepulchrally bare trees and various shades of dust brown, this is not Remington’s more opulent vision of nature that are in his paintings.  The trees bear swaying corpses and the backdrop is visually bizarre, like the rider in a bearskin who looks like a bear riding a horse.  This I think is a nod towards Jeremiah Johnston a reminder that even in the 1870’s the west was still a vast wilderness for whites.  Nature is a mirage which is skirted with ambush and violence.  There is no real claim to visual originality, more an untameable quirkiness which resists moral expectations.  Violence is a sudden bitter flourish in gesture and face.  A man’s fingers are chopped off, Laboeuf nearly bites his own tongue off, a snakebite blackens an arm, night camps are protected by ropes which keep the snakes away, brutality will do what it can when the chance arises, there is a hanging in the town of Fort Smith at the beginning of the film.

All this is in contrast to the peculiarly florid and biblical language that the protagonists (especially Mattie) use.  It’s as if the harshness and brutality can be endured by a florid turn of phrase like engraving a chrysanthemum on a samurai sword.  There is deftness about phrase making and argument, Mattie does business easily and persuades tough men to ride with her.  She will not be dismissed, her precocity excites their resentment and erotic insolence:  Laboeuf administers a spanking.  She does not have to resort to the familiar tactics of sentiment, she forces these hardbitten frontiersmen to act on her terms and in doing so sets up a macho contest between Labeouf and Cogburn.  Each probes the other’s weaknesses, though Cogburn is better at concealing his, finally forcing Labeouf into an initially reluctant mentoring role for Mattie.  Civilization of course is thrown into very dubious relief.  In general, western films are resentful of the spread of urban life even as they thrive on the cut throat individualism of its capitalist dynamism.  There is a real, uneasy sort of fascist eulogizing of wildness which usually needs a narrative of resentment to give it coherence otherwise it would just be a National Geographic look at the Iron Man.  The resentment appears when an idiosyncratically cultivated mysticism is violated by capitalist servility, the spread of civilized mores, or ugly industrialism.  These come out in the Coens’ film.  I detest the Coens’ fascination with violence and physical oddity, but in this film they have found their true calling, they out Peckinpah Sam Peckinpah.

This is a reminder of those 1970’s westerns which showed the west from a worm’s eye view: the alkali dust, the longueurs of rural life, the shear life-corroding harshness of the frontier, the moronic thuggishness of the formerly romanticized villains.  The sepia tinted myths were getting a makeover.  The Coens have not exactly rejected the sepias and there is still the unrealistic silliness of the their gunfights, but it could be the Coens are factoring in their own cinematic mythmaking into this story.  Now westerns have to be comments about the western as they try to recreate life in the wild frontier.  In that respect this is a somewhat old fashioned western, although there are acknowledgements of 1970’s attempts at realism, there is mainly a direct line to the westerns of the 30’s to the 60’s where the bad guys wear black hats and the good guys wear white hats and there is no probing into what makes a guy good or bad.

 
 

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Howl

Howl posterSynopsis

Set in the mid 1950s about Alan Ginsberg the poet and the ‘obscenity’ trial at which his publisher Ferlinghetti was present but Ginsberg was absent.  We see Ginsberg trying to write and then read from his poem Howl to an audience of enthusiasts, some of whom may not have escaped being called ‘beatniks’.  We see Ginsberg’s relationships with Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac.  We learn that Ginsberg did not want his father to learn that he was gay.  We see him interviewed by an unseen and unheard interviewer as he expands his notions of what poetry is, and what the artist’s relation to it should be.  We see animations expressing the poems.  We see the courtroom drama where Jake Ehrlich (Jon Hamm) defends artistic freedom and Ralph McIntosh (David Strathairn) attacks it.  We see artistic freedom vindicated after Ehrlich and McIntosh question several academics about art. Jeff Davids plays one of the academics.  James Franco plays Ginsberg.

Criticism

An intoxicating look at Ginsberg’s big poetic breakthrough.  This film strips away with surgical vigour the mythical accretions of the past century.  It does not go for the easy archetypal routine:  there is no mention of Elvis or James Dean.  The film is as limpidly as light through gin and the pictures of that time get burned and etched through the passion of the poetry.  It conveys what excitement there must have been when so called ‘beat’ writers inspired their listeners  The film avoids easy point scoring at the expense of the ’50s.  Much has been said about that decade’s retentive conservatism, but we can forget the misery and chaos of depression and world war that preceded it and how at least in the early ’50s that conservatism put a lid on what had gone before.  David Strathairn as the prosecuting lawyer in the ‘obscenity’ trial is too easily set up as a philistine figure of fun, and we are certainly not meant to see any sense in his arguments but he comes across, for me, more as a sad dinosaur.  He admits he doesn’t understand Howl though of course that doesn’t excuse his philistinism.  He gives the Jon Hamm lawyer the chance to mount an eloquent defence of artistic freedom against those Eisenhower era pedants who persecuted Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society.  At one stage the defence is reduced to saying that poetry cannot be rendered into prose.  Naturally, we are witnessing the change in attitude which would inaugurate the so-called ‘pop revolution’ of the ’60s  An interesting aspect of the difficulty of art for the general public is that it reflects the alienation of art from industrial society which had been a prominent feature of the 19th century and it continued into the 20th.   Poor Strathairn was making a misguided plea for the accessibility of art.  As for the poetry itself, it is read out in coffee bars and it is illustrated by pastel-like sketches reminiscent of William Blake.  How do you convey poetry in film?  Not really in these sketches which is like trying to express a music composer’s work by playing it on a xylophone.  Snatches from Howl seem Kabbalistic and Whitmanish.    Ginsberg reads it in a sing song tone, James Franco does a good job of this

It’s amazing how the beats actually started out as aspirational middle class.  Throughout the film, Franco as Ginsberg is dressed soberly, his only wildman concession at the end is a neatly trimmed beard.  Indeed, Ginsberg denied the charge of being ‘beat’, he says it was a group of guys who wanted to get published.   Ginsberg in the interviews is much concerned with the relationship of the writer’s life to the work, in that he shares our mania for often irrelevant biographical details.  Franco always makes him likeable and makes you realize that there was an urgent organic need to question the America of Revolutionary Road and Stepford Wives Howl commendably shuns the temptation to mythologize its hero and this puts the career of Ginsbergs’ most famous admirer, Dylan, into an interesting perspective.  Ginsberg remained accessible and he was close to his audience who must have felt like they were in a feisty verbal brawl.  There was none of the distance that fame and money inflicted on Dylan’s fans.  I could appreciate the tangible details in Ginsberg’s poems though when he preaches, his poetry sounds like a precocious but naive fifth former trying to impress.   He is fascinating for me on the street imagery in The machinery of night.  He was also quite bravely gay in an era when it could destroy lives.  Dylan on the other hand lends himself too easily to the bogus mythologizing of I’m not There, the recent biopic which use different oddball personae.  It’s interesting that Howl uses Dylan’s Wheels on Fire for the end credits, you would think something from his earlier work would be closer to the beat spirit, but of course it isn’t.  The 1962-66 period of ‘beat’ Dylan is derivative folksy ballads leading to ’64-66’s whiney voice winding through capriciously collaged snapshots of imagery.

Franco reads Ginsberg’s work like he’s an urgent shaman of the coffee bars.

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Posted by on May 26, 2011 in Film Reviews

 

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