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MUD

Mud film posterSynopsis

About two teenage boys Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) who meet a loner on an island in the Mississippi.  They are befriended by Mud (Mathew McConaughey) who is wanted for a killing in Texas.  Mud’s girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) is persecuted by Mud’s pursuers led by Joe Don Baker. Tom (Sam Shepard) is a former marine who lives in a cabin across the river from Mud.  Michael Shannon plays Neckbone’s uncle.  Ellis’s parents are heading for a broken marriage.  One of the boys meets a girl who lets him down and he feels that Juniper lets him and Mud down in the end.  At great risk Mud helps Ellis when he’s bitten by a cottonmouth snake.  There is a shoot out at the end…

Review

The obvious influence here is Huckleberry Finn and there are similarities to other films such as Whistle Down the Wind or even The Iron Man: impressionable boys meet a mysterious stranger who goes from a Christ figure, to a Judas, and then to a more human level.  This is about growing up and redemption.  Mud earns the boys’ affection and respect after initial wariness.  He is an ultimately steadier emotional presence than Juniper’s or the girlfriend or Ellis’ father, indeed he becomes substitute parent.  Ellis’ mother is strong but embattled by the domesticity which contrasts with Mud’s frontier glamour.  Mud comes to represent the pioneering values of constancy and reliability as opposed to the seeming fickleness of women.  He is seen as a loner who can provide salvation, the avenging angel.  In the film’s patient description of hard survival I often thought of Hemingways’ Old Man and the Sea.  There are vivid scenes in Mud: Mud’s boat is stuck in the branches of a tree.  Mud and the boys pull it out of the tree in a mini version of Fitzcarraldo where a steamboat is dragged through the jungle. Neckbone’s uncle (Michael Shannon) goes oyster hunting in the river bed, he wears Ned Kelly iron protection gear.  If the film slowed down at this point I would swear it was directed by Terence Mallick but it gets into more conventionally violent mode.  The shoot-out between Mud and the vigilantes at the end spoils the film.  For most of the story, the film is a rite of passage for the boys in the dreamy landscape of the Mississippi, more visually impressive than the pretentious fuss of Beasts of the Southern Wild but at the end it becomes predictable.  I’m often mystified by what appears to be an American addictive reverence for gun violence sanctified by the Second Amendment.  Why is the false resolution by shoot-out given such a special place?  For most of the film, Sam Shepard is like an Emersonian poet who you expect to repudiate his military past, but then he becomes an enthusiastic killer.  If you were to personify this film you could say it looks at the stars, holds a smoking gun in one hand, and drags its feet in the muck.  It would be an excellent film but for the gunfight,

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Posted by on June 8, 2013 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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The Paperboy

The Paperboy film posterSynopsis

Directed by Lee Daniels, set in 1960’s Florida.  The story is told by a black maid Anita (Macy Gray).  Nicole Kidman plays Charlotte Bless, she corresponds with death row cop killer Hillary van Wetter (John Cusack).  Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) is a journalist following a story that van Wetter is innocent.  He investigates with Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo).  Van Wetter will only be interviewed if Charlotte is present.  Ward’s brother Jack (Zac Efron) bums around and gets obsessed with Charlotte.

SPOILER ALERT!  Van Wetter is released and lives with Charlotte in the Everglades.  He kills her and could kill others.  He is caught again.  Ward is off to fulfil literary ambitions…

Review

This movie feels as sweaty, languid and torpid as it looks.  It’s like a stroll through a steamy greenhouse decorated with orchids and iguanas.  This is Tennessee Williams land, the youthful Marlon Brando had the time of his life in this ambience.  This is the era of the anti-racist civil rights movement, we are in the deep south and we get reptilian looks and attitudes from white officialdom.  Yardley, of course, is the easily targeted victim of this as a black man, though he subverts their racist stupidity by dropping his English accent to speak like an aggressive American.  The policemen are like Rod Steiger getting a deserved comeuppance from Sidney Poitier. Nicole Kidman’s Charlotte is a Blanche du Bois party piece, a steely self respect under the vaudevillian tartiness.  She is all peroxide hair and trowel-applied mascara, she looks like a permanent two o’clock in the morning.  When interviewing van Wetter, Charlotte takes off her underwear and rubs herself, the men in the room look hypocritically embarrassed.  In another scene Jack is stung by a jellyfish and the only cure is a urine shower on his skin which he gets from Charlotte.  Ward is gay and gets beaten up by thugs and the movie sinks even deeper into a hungover lassitude.  It’s all blood sweat and tropical steaminess.  The revolting van Wetter is a homicidal animal, you wouldn’t imagine Truman Capote wasting much time on this guy.  Van Wetter’s folk are jungle denizens.  An alligator carcass hangs in the sun and van Wetter rips into the reptile like a feral hunter in some primeval blood rite.  I’m a big fan of David Janssen’s 1960s series The Fugitive (in which a wrongfully convicted doctor is on the run) and I kept wondering which of these characters would have betrayed him and which would have helped.  Jack’s family would doubtless have grassed him up, they are trip wire white supremists,  gargoyle ugly, and ever alert to insubordination.  It’s like a pastiche of TV characters from 60s programmes: the newly confident black person, the sassy peroxide blonde, the alcoholic wife, the irritable confused kid, the always decent older brother, the pantomime murderer, the redneck racist police.  Their resentment lacks focus, it lashes about looking for weak spots in a potential victim.  Ward is the decent character who will write about all this.  This is not supposed to be as good as the novel but I found it enjoyable even if it felt like too long in a sauna.

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Posted by on May 16, 2013 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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In the House

In the House film posterSynopsis

Directed by François Ozon.  About a school teacher, Germain (Fabrice Luchini) who teaches literature in a provincial French town.  He is married to Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas) who’s in charge of an art gallery.  They have no children.  Germain has an imaginative pupil Claude (Ernst Umhauer) who writes well on “what I did last week”.  The other pupils are hopelessly inept at writing.   Claude has a friend Rapha whose parents are affluent, they are Rapha and Esther.  Germain nurtures Claude’s talent and asks him to write about the lives of Rapha’s parents.  Is Germain encouraging voyeurism in Claude?  At the end Germain and Claude are building fictions from what they see in windows…

Review

This is a film about writing and film.  The school is Lycee Gustave Flaubert which refers us to the highly meticulous and perfectionist writer.  This film tells us of the danger of manipulating reality in the name of art, of the danger of making fluid boundaries between fantasy wish and realisation of such fantasy.  We get Purple Rose of Cairo-like situations where an actor playing Humphrey Bogart dispenses worldly wisdom to Woody Allen, only he can see Bogart.   In the House works as a satire on our expectations from film, Claude dreams of making love to Esther and we will him to go and do it.  As viewers we are complicit in the proceedings though we don’t get as stern a lecture as Haneke is prepared to give us in his films.  It’s about the writer/artist as observer and the boundary between artistic perception and voyeuristic manipulation.  Claude shows a gift for observation, writing about the “singular smell of a middle class woman”.  Rapha’s parents are cheerfully philistine and unacquainted with the rigours and perils of artistic aspiration.  Rapha’s home is in stark contrast to Claude’s broken home, Claude is the resentful outsider.  Germain eventually realizes he is playing a dangerous game by mentoring the unflinching gaze of an emerging talent.  Manipulation comes with consequences and Germain learns this to his cost.  His fostering of Claude has repercussions on his own relationship with his partner Jeanne.  He gets jealous and violent.  This reminds me of the novel The Act of Love by Howard Jacobson in which a husband arranges a relationship between his wife and another man and then tortures himself with jealousy over it.  The answer to this and Germain is “serves you right”.

At the end of the film Germain and Claude are observing lives going on behind the windows of houses.  This is an obvious reference to Hitchcock’s Rear Window and of course the camera”s balefully swivelling eye in Psycho. The house of the title could be a metaphorical house of art in which we are invited to watch the libidinous imagination play havoc with bourgeoise domesticity.  We last saw Fabrice Luchini play the pompous bourgeoise husband in Potiche, and in House he is similarly as comical as he gets out of his depth.  Absorbing.

 
 

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Compliance

Compliance film posterSynopsis

Set in a fast food restaurant named “Chickwitch”.  Sandra (Ann Dowd) is the boss.  Hundreds of dollars worth of bacon have been spoiled so she puts it right by nagging her subordinates.  Employee Becky (Dreama Walker) has a boyfriend.  Sandra receives a phone call from someone calling himself Officer Daniels who tells her there is a thief among the staff.  Sandra targets Becky and she is compliant with Daniel’s demand to isolate Becky and then subject her to increasingly humiliating treatment.  Daniels is actually an evil hoaxer…

Review

This is a truly scary and original film about humanity’s terrifying gullibility when faced with dictatorial behaviour.  In her eagerness to do right by the law, it never occurs to Sandra to question the initially implausible, and later downright sick, demands of the phone caller.  The police station is only half a mile away yet she doesn’t wonder how it takes so long for the caller to arrive.  Becky must take off her clothes and submit to this caller’s demands in a film which looks like a very dark Twilight Zone episode.  Whatever one’s view on the Milgram Experiment (a 1961 laboratory situation in which students administered what they thought were increasing doses of electric shocks to victims, doing this out of cowed obedience, in reality the “victims’ simulated pain”), Compliance illustrates it as it glares at our readiness to succumb to unsupported assertion and arrogant control.  Compliance‘s characters are like lab rats in their self serving propensity to act on slanderous rumour.  We’ve seen too many examples in recent history to doubt this as such manipulative evil can flourish in our readiness to submit to outrageous claims to authority.

Compliance has chosen a fast food diner, with its overworked staff serving disgusting fried food (I wouldn’t give burgers to a dog, never mind a human being).  Sandra’s fiancée (played by Bill Camp) also complies with the demands of the fake police officer  The prankster knows when to use the right doses of flattery and threat.  Compliance bleakly portrays Sandra as no different from most petty authority figures in such workplaces, she is submissive to hierarchy, and bullying to those she has authority over, her slave mentality makes her perfect compliance material.  Compliance is a Haneke parable about our primitive malleability when it serves our imagined petty advantage e.g. in approval seeking.  Upon being questioned at the end of the film, Sandra claims victim status and squirms with self justification when shown filmed evidence of her compliance, and tries to change the subject with a banal observation.  This film is based on a real incident.

 
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Posted by on April 25, 2013 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Arbitrage

Arbitrage film posterSynopsis

Stars Richard Gere as Robert Miller, a multimillionaire who is involved in a four hundred million dollar scam over the non deliverance of a deal on Russian copper.  He is married to Susan Sarandon as Ellen, his daughter Brooke (played by Brit Marling) works as his business partner.  Gere has a mistress, Julie, and he accidentally kills her and walks away. The detective is played by Tim Roth and he tries to nail Gere for the death of his mistress but Gere can cover his tracks.  Will he be found out by his wife and detective? What will his conscience do, and will there be justice?.

Review

The writer has had experience in the financial world.  It’s been criticised for its implausibilities with regard to finance but I don’t think that’s important here.  It’s a tense and thrilling film with a touch of film noir.  Gere is attractive even in his 60s (which can’t make him over popular) but I find him quite an accomplished actor.  He doesn’t have to display turbulent emotions, they break through the smarmy surface so you know he’s done a good job of hiding them.  He plays roles in which other actors would feel they have to look tortured, Gere lets the panic out in dangerous outbursts.  His suave appearance gives him that awful sense of entitlement that stokes up the drama.  Sometimes we will him to get caught out, and sometimes we want to see how he gets away with it, as he makes unlikeable people occasionally sympathetic.  In Pretty Woman he played a terrible role as a smug manipulator and would-be saviour of a prostitute.  Here his character leads a life of deception but then we learn that the detective is prepared to bend rules to get him, and that his wife (Susan Sarandon) at the end is prepared to blackmail him to keep funding her charities.  He is prepared to use someone else to cover for him but gives him a big pay off so that no-one comes out of this cleanly.  Gripping.

 
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Posted by on April 24, 2013 in Film Reviews

 

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Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty film posterSynopsis

About the search for and killing of Osama bin Laden.  Jessica Chastain plays Maya who leads the hunt  for him.  An al-Qaeda suspect is tortured.  We follow Chastain in her hunt and she has to convince her bosses to act.  Her colleagues die in attacks.  The team goes into north Pakistan (Abbatabad) and they kill bin Laden and allies.

Review

This film is bound to arouse much controversy because of the debate about the use of torture in combating terrorism.  For those against torture it might look an apology for it, and for those in favour it might appear to reinforce their beliefs.  The film does have that same self congratulatory feel to it that was prevalent in Argo.  Just as Argo uses the ‘dramatic license’ excuse to lie about the role of the British Embassy in Tehran so the small detail about bin Laden’s hunter being a man and not Jessica Chastain’s character is cheerfully discarded.  I suspect so are other historical details.  There are, after all, people who doubt bin Laden was killed.  The film does not flinch at showing the shocking details of what is done to suspects in the name of the war against terror (how do you make war against an abstraction?) .  The film avoids complicated ethical questions and is more concerned with torture’s war-legitimised efficacy.  It’s depiction of security service violence arguably constitutes a gratuitous wallowing in it, after it’s long been easy for mainstream cinema to show vaudevillian levels of brutality.  The CIA characters in this film, unlike in Argo, are given no humorous and heroic way out for their actions, they are career hunters after terrorists whom we are repeatedly reminded are a threat to our democratic values, but then the terrible irony of becoming infected with the enemy’s contempt for human rights is never addressed.  This film adapts the rather hectic pseudo documentary pace of constant switching of place and time like a real life Bourne.  Self justification is reserved for technical details, the default position on arguments is for personality differences, so the bigger justification for “war on terror” is evaded.  References to terror outrages are plot propulsion and rationale for the American agent’s often unsavoury actions.  The torture scenes veer between the overriding need to extract information and a rueful recognition of the psycho-sexual aspects of such sessions.

The final tracking down and killing of Osama bin Laden gets perilously close to the A team or Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds puppets  (hilarious in Team America).  I half expected Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris to turn up waving machine pistols around, and I had to remind myself that this was a real life mission to take out the big bogeyman.  Again like Argo there is a smug tone to the final scenes.  Meanwhile Obama is busy killing people with his drones.

 
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Posted by on March 20, 2013 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Hitchcock

Hitchcock film posterSynopsis

About the making of Hitchcock’s Psycho, Anthony Hopkins plays Hitchcock getting through the Eisenhower era obstacles of censorious prudery, timidity, shame and conservatism.  Helen Mirren plays his wife Alma Reville and it concerns her input into his directorial art when she fell out with the scriptwriter.  It shows us the original 1940’s case on which Psycho was based.  Scarlett Johansson plays Janet Leigh and James D’Arcy plays Anthony Perkins.  Hitchcock must fund the film himself and Paramount will distribute it.

Review

This has been attacked for being inaccurate about Hitchcock but I wonder if this matters.  Hitchcock would surely have appreciated a film as a work of art about his film making.  Hollywood does love to reference itself endlessly.  Anthony Hopkins may not much look like Hitchcock but he sounds and acts like him.  We are now used to muck-raking about this director, about his sexual predatoriness towards his blonde stars.  The film The Girl is based on Tippi Hedren and the making of The Birds, she has accused Hitchcock of making sexual advances to her and The Girl shows how this weaves into the making of that film.  In The Girl Hitchcock is played by Toby Jones as a sad stalker.  Hitchcock passes over these accusations and so resists hindsight meretriciousness (this is before The Birds) so he gets the benefit of the doubt as an impressively artistic monster rather than a sadly sexual one.

Psycho has set the template for schlok horror for the past 50 years, of course in 1960 it was schockingly new: a bathroom knife attack, cross dressing, and the attention to psychotic detail.  Up to 1960 the American home was advertized as a sanctum of moral rectitude but in Psycho there is a stuffed corpse and (gasp) a toilet!  This gives the film a greater cultural significance than its intrinsic merits warrant.

Helen Mirren gives a strong performance as Mrs Hitchcock.  It’s hard to believe she was overshadowed by her husband.  She is an amazing mixture of technical expertise and saintly self effacement.  She is terse and laconic about the prima donna antics of the film business, it’s no surprise she suggests killing off Janet Leigh early in the movie.  She herself has a brief affair with a hack writer Whitfield Cook played by Danny Huston and this is in itself like a Hitchcock story.  In films Hitchcock emphasized the gaze of the camera, and of people on each other, so it’s rather apt that the cold eye of the camera swivels about in Hitchcock’s house which seems bereft of sex in its hilariously sanitized Doris Day bedroom.  The interiors are as formal and chilling as those we see in Hitchcock’s 50s films.  These affluent acres of film land are a perfect background for some Daphne du Maurier or Patricia Highsmith character sinisterly swanning around.  I’m reminded of those eery sets for Kim Novak in Vertigo.  Scarlett Johansson is only required to impersonate Janet Leigh and James D’Arcy plays Anthony Perkins offering hints of being gay.  Neither reverential nor scabrous, Hitchcock offers a perceptive view of the launching of pulp horror.  Interestingly, neither The Girl nor Hitchcock gives us any insight into Hitchcock’s penchant for cod psychology.

 
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Posted by on March 8, 2013 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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