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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?

Review

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 Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 film posterSynopsis

Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is with the underground rebel movement and is being designed as its leader.  Julianne Moore  is the rebel president.  Alma Coin (Donald Sutherland) is her foe, President Snow of Capitol.  Both rebel and Capitol forces attack each other. Katniss invents the mockingjay song as the anthem of revolution.  Her friend Peeta from Catching Fire has been brainwashed by the government and he is interviewed by impresario Stanley Tucci.  The rebels cut off Capitol’s power and infiltrate it.  Will they rescue Peeta?

Review

The first book of Hunger Games has been split in two as the franchise takes its cue from the Harry Potter gravy train.  Mockingjay appears to have jettisoned the futurism of the previous films, as decadent nabobs have scrapped the make up for the born again puritan look in boiler suits, and Katniss has settled for teen war chic as (rather approprietely with ironic intentions as to the power of film) she engages in a media image as well as an arms war.  Our heroes stroll through the war rubble like world-redeeming rock stars, posing against disaster backdrops as if telling us this is what’s happening right now in some parts of the world.  Jennifer Lawrence is a pretty good teen hero model. She has the charisma and the face for it, she is a sci-fi messiah as a feminist riposte to Paul in Dune.  The film is going for contemporary relevance not just regarding the horrors of war but also enviromental disaster.  Julianne Moore is icily effective as the iron-like president, as she and her team create a charismatic role for Katniss.  This, for me, is a canny self acknowledgement of Mockingjay’s own merchandizing power as a franchise, as it fosters luvvie delusions about being spokespersons for the world.  It appears to be distancing itself from the other teen franchises too, as it tries to be a thinking person’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Why Katniss would love someone as feeble as Peeta is a mystery since she is superior in every way.  There is an inescapable aura of sadness in this film because of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death..

 

 

 
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Posted by on January 14, 2015 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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All is Lost

All is Lost film posterSynopsis

Robert Redford plays a lone yachtsman in the Indian Ocean.  A steel container collides with the yacht and leaves a hole in the side which Redford plugs with fibre glass and resin.  In a storm the boat overturns and becomes increasingly waterlogged. Spoiler Alert! Redford abandons the yacht and uses his dinghy.  Two ships pass him by, later he desperately signals to a boat at night…

Review

There are only a few sentences in this film, it’s all action.  It’s as if the sounds of the sea and ship become the sound effects for a manual of self help whilst at sea.  The film’s ‘language’ is stripped down to the bare onomatopoeia of mounting desperation from earlier self control.  Shut your eyes and the clatter of boat objects will tell you this is good old American self sufficiency.  The later sucking of the water over and in the raft rubber tell you there is the desperation of wait and helplessness.  Towards the end of the film Redford should be a lot weaker than he appears to be, but then if he were too weak he would not be ready for action that completes this drama, so we’ll let artistic licence win out.

Redford was of course one of the film gods of the 70s but All is Lost is an interesting reminder of the Redford who played rugged resourcefulness as in Jeremiah Johnson where he played a trapper in the old American west.  Perhaps this is the idealized self image of Redford, in his career he has never played odd balls or failures.  It’s as if he must be as capable as his good looks demand him to be.  In All is Lost his refusal to panic is almost super human, he never gives way to terror or self pity, merely frustration.  There is no psychological deterioration, he is the master of his terrifying circumstances.  In Pincher Martin by William Golding, the entire action of the novel takes place an instant before Martin dies and there is a temptation to await the same alarming twist in all films about extreme situations, like the recent film Burial.  One looked in vain in All is Lost for this kind of ending.  It’s simply about the nuts and bolts of survival.  There is no Life of Pi play with narrative, no biblical resolution, he’s neither Job nor Noah.  There is a story by Tolstoy about death brought on by a trivial accident with a window handle, and there is the same farce about the start of this tragedy, the yacht deteriorates after a metal container containing trainers has crashed into it and ripped a big hole.  Similarly in Lonely are the Brave, Kirk Douglas, the anachronistic cowboy, is brought down by a collision with a truck carrying toilet bowls, a banal and unheroic nemesis. The ending of Redford’s All is Lost is somewhat unlikely and might be the result of hallucinatory wishful thinking.

 
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Posted by on January 20, 2014 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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RUSH

RUSH film posterSynopsis

About the 1970s rivalry between Formula One drivers Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) and James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth).  Lauda has a terrible accident but returns to the racing track.  Hunt lives a hedonistic life and is married and divorced. They drive in all conditions but Lauda is the most cautious.  There are lots of close up views of the tracks and cars.

Review

There have been many films about sports and the obsessive arousal in sportsmen and women.  Usually they do not get below the obvious surface, motivational progress follows a sort of hallowed and well worn prolepsis in which dramatic punch is supposed to compensate for predictability.  Obsession, should be an obvious challenge to any decent actor, there is the plausible analogy between acting and sport as performances. Chris Hemsworth as Hunt is all broad brushings, he is an a unapologetically would-be Byronic man of action, cheerfully hedonistic in a way guaranteed to upset our therapy culture, and brainwashed puritans of the 21st century.  He is an old fashioned sexist who analogizes sex and cars with other metaphors.  He drinks and smokes a great deal and is cheerfully indifferent to the terrors of driving a slender metal torpedo round a race track.  Given the construction of the car and the terrifying speed it looked not so much like driving as automated  rocket control down some jokey death tunnel.  I find this sport a waste of time as TV viewing but to be there or close up on film it looks and feels like the engine drilled lunatic ride it really is.  It provided the model surely for the film Rollerball (1975) which was made at the time of this rivalry.  Anything stripped down reductively can be absurd and seem futile, and so usually does Formula One but the proximity of death in this boys-with-toys hellhole makes it compulsory watching.  The frantic speedy cross cutting of shots is like that in Simon Pegg’s comedy Hot Fuzz, only this film has few laughs.  Hunt is comedy caricatured counter poise to Niki Lauda played like a hair triggered neurotic.  The cliches should be too good to be true, Hunt is the genial upper class playboy against Lauda’s nervily pernickety and ever so meticulous Austrian, but ironically it’s the humourless Lauda who comes across as the more sympathetically human as he is not prepared to risk his life in dangerous wet conditions but Hunt just steams ahead with cheerfully macho unconcern.  Women are as decorative in this film as they are expected to be on the circuit. There is the usual stilted mention of the era’s celebrities, like Richard Burton.  Set in the 70s there is the usual pedantry about getting the period right but you could probably have fun watching out for this and other period films getting details wrong.  Exciting film.

 
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Posted by on September 26, 2013 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class posterSynopsis

About the origins of the X-Men.  Michael Fassbender plays Erik, a Jewish Boy in Auschwitz.  He cannot demonstrate his powers to German commander Kevin Bacon (who later becomes Sebastian Shaw), so Bacon shoots Eric’s mother.  Erik gets his revenge on Nazis.  Later, Sebastian has a mutant sidekick who turns into metal, she is played by January Jones.  James McAvoy is into thought control and is an Oxford  professor, he will become the wheelchair bound Xavier played by Patrick Stewart.  Xavier meets other X-people – a blue skinned woman, a blue wolf man, a fire thrower and a winged woman.  They are recruited by the C.I.A. during the Cuban missile crisis.  Sebastian initially helps the Russians but is attacked by X-Men, Erik gets revenge on Shaw and becomes Magneto.

Criticism

If you are not an X-Men fan, this film could be all over the place.  It seems obligatory these days in action films to go from city to city, then we watch the C.G.I. do its work.  There’s scarcely time to get to know any of the characters because of course it’s assumed that we should know about them already.  As in such films as Star Wars where the prequels come later than the sequels, what should be explanatory origins become hasty introductions.  Watching this is a bit like watching Harry Potter for the over 20s with bits of Austin Powers, Bourne Trilogy, and Heroes.  After the 1944 beginning, it’s set in 1962 and there are a couple of anachronisms: short mini skirts didn’t come in until the mid 60s, the song Hippy Hippy Shake came out in 1964.  I’m uneasy with a fantasy story using the Holocaust.  This subject should be dealt with carefully, even Schindler’s List used it in a controversial way.

At times, the film gets into cod ethics about the responsibilities of using powers properly, how should more evolved people relate to normal people, are they friend or foe?  Usually these mutants consider themselves as freaks and want to be normal but in the end they are happy to use their powers capriciously enough.  It looks like a teen vampire movie with special effects machinery added on.  There’s humour about their situation, Xavier gives them jokey routines like Q from James Bond and he throws in a bit of philosophy just to remind us that it can put special effects in their place.  The marvellous becomes domesticated, reduced to the level of teen anxieties as when the blue skinned mutant confesses she doesn’t like her appearance she is reassured that you wouldn’t cover up the face of a tiger, why hers?  This could have led to more promising dialogue but in the end I thought she looked like a Smurf with yellow conjunctivitis.

In taking major historical events and treating them to sci-fi outcomes, this film becomes parasitic on those outcomes, it wants the reflected seriousness of being associated with those events with none of the responsibilities of historical understanding, so it can undermine the lessons these events have for us now.  I couldn’t blame Hugh Jackman For telling Xavier and Magneto to go forth and multiply.  Maybe Magneto later turned up on the grassy knoll during the 1963 Kennedy assassination, he will direct the firing from the knoll to complement Lee Harvey Oswald’s shots from behind.

For fans of the conspiracy theory, grassy knoll type.

 
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Posted by on June 10, 2011 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Pirates of the Caribbean IV: On Stranger Tides

Pirate of the Carribbean: On stranger Tides posterSynopsis

Jack Sparrow  is in London and he is captured and meets George II to do a deal with Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) who wants to reach the “Fountain of Youth”.  The Spaniards are already searching for it.  Sparrow wants a ship but is abducted by Blackbeard’s daughter, Penelope Cruz.  They need the two cups of a sixteenth century explorer (Ponce de Leon) and the tears of a mermaid.  They capture a mermaid and eventually get to the fountain.  The Spanish want to destroy it because its promise of eternal youth is contrary to their religion.

Criticism

This summation makes the film seem more coherent than it really is.  It is actually the usual Johnny Depp stand up comedy routine surrounded by sidekicks.  We keep being told that Depp copies Keith Richard’s voice (he makes a brief appearance) but it seems as if Depp has been studying a lot of camp British comedy.  Depp is quite funny and it’s quite something to make such a toe rag of British camp into a global franchise which has outdone Harry Potter.  As long as it keeps on raking in dosh, why stop it?  As entertainment it fills the void left by Indiana Jones.  It’s a board game fantasy in panto drag.  Depp and Rush do a creditable Robert Newton, who used to ham his way through Long John Silver.  It’s quite an achievement when you consider that Geena Davis’ pirate film of the ’90s bombed at the box office.  The pirate films of the ’40s and ’50s were unrealistic adventures, Pirates is a once inspired fantasy, which now just about justifies itself.   I would like to see a film about the reality of pirate life, but it wouldn’t be a money maker would it?  Still, it would have been a great improvement to see a breakaway from the formulaic familiarities.  The love interest is between a preacher and a mermaid, both bland and forgettable.  Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom have fallen off the treasure map.  There’s the usual list of Brit actors having a ride while they pick up a pay cheque.

Each scene is self contained which makes the film disjointed, so it’s like looking at discarded scenes from the latest Orange mobile phone adverts. The self parodies get tangled up in each other as well.  Depp minces his picaresque way through his slapstick routines and it would be nice to see him attempt some of the stunts that Burt Lancaster could do in The Crimson Pirate.  Depp looks like he’s stolen his clothes off a panto washing line and he does well with his stage props.  With all the money it’s made, Pirates could have been more inventive with surrealism instead of giving us unprepossessing mermaids.  This made it look like a stop gap for Harry Potter and Narnia.

For all Depp’s comic prowess, which makes the other actors look like sidekicks, I feel that Pirates cannot continue this way.  A fifth film would have to be a real change in the routine but I fear that as long as the money comes in it will outstay its welcome.  After the credits, the final scene of Pirates IV would appear to confirm one’s worst fears..

 

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