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Selma

Selma film posterSynopsis

About Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) and the civil rights struggles in 1965 in Selma Alabama.  King organizes a march for the right to vote.  About the persecution of black people by southern whites led by George Wallace (Tim Roth).  Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom wilkinson) tries to put off civil rights to a later date.  FBI chief Hoover (Dylan Baker) tries to slander King.  Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) is the scarier alternative to King’s non violence. Carmen Ejogo plays Coretta Scott King.

Review

Selma commendably avoids the sentimental trap of epiphanous moments on the self congratulatory road to liberal democratic heaven.  There is no ambushing of the film by a white film star (as there might have been until recently).  David Oyelowo avoids the sort of statuesque dignity which would turn King into a black Lincoln.  He has affairs and is humanly flawed yet is a powerful presence.  His funeral and political ovations are musical and stirring.  His decision to ‘retreat’ after the second march on the Edmond Pettus bridge is all the more impressive for its subtle selflessness.  The focal scene in Selma is the march on the bridge, its role as a symbol is obvious.  In numerous films bridges have been critical meeting points and the reality of that is bloodily illustrated in Selma.  Malcolm X is there to act as a reminder that radical opinion might view non violence as an Uncle Tom tactic, that martyrdom was a useless gesture in the face of white power, speaking of which, Lyndon Johnston does look as cynically self serving as any politician condescendingly acknowledging that civil rights is morally fine but not an immediate priority.  J Edgar Hoover looks like a well groomed rat and behaves like one.  Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King also avoids the stereotype of purse lipped dignity foisted on so many black actors in these sort of films.  The Kings have to deal with the simplified image of the good man of poetic rheetoric and the reality of a middle class couple caught up in the terrors of civil rights and the emotional torments of marital infidelity.  There is a memorable scene at the beginning of Selma in which Oprah Winfrey is asked to prove her eligibility in registering for the vote.  She’s undone by the simple malice of institutionalised injustice.  A triumphant film.

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Posted by on March 30, 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.

Review

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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Foxcatcher

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.

Review

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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Behind the Candelabra

Behind the Candelabra film posterSynopsis

By Steven ‘Sex Lies and Videotape’ Soderbergh.  About the pianist Liberace (Michael Douglas) and his homosexual relationship with Scott Thorson (Matt Damon).  Based on Thorson’s book about his affair and the jealousies that led to their acrimonious split.  Thorson had started out as an animal trainer for movies.  It shows Liberace getting Thorson to undergo surgery to emulate his own ordeal.  It shows Liberace at his piano performances and his death from Aids.

Review

Hollywood studios would not touch this film so it was premiered at the Cannes film festival, presumably because it’s too explicit in the way it deals with homosexuality.  The big surprise for mainstream cinema is that Matt Damon and Michael Douglas have played mainstream machos (imagine Redford or Eastwood playing a pair of queens!) and here they are not only camping it up but showing the two men in an honest and direct way, though one might still offer the caveat that they might feel easier playing queens rather than ordinary people in such a relationship, after all, quite a few actors have played camp.  Liberace’s stage performance makes Elton John look sedate, I’m reminded more of Andy Warhol (like him Liberace was a Catholic).  It’s amazing that Liberace’s blue rinse audience appear to have been ignorant about his sexuality.

The film follows their daily life in what Liberace called “palatial kitsch”. His candour over his affluent tasteless slum does not diminish one’s visceral revulsion against its tackiness and spiritual desolation, where is the zebra skin couch?  Again, one thinks of the pathos of this spiritual squalor as in Sunset Boulevard.  Liberace’s keyboard talent does not extend to his awful taste in pictures or furniture.  Now of course, many affluent people in the rich world emulate Liberace in the horrors of plastic surgery and manipulation, and sexual callousness in what we call oxymoronically “celebrity culture”.

Douglas as Liberace shows us the nuanced human being under the twitching camp mask that’s sometime reptilian and sometime easily wounded.  The bedroom scenes are a scary mix of insecurity and paranoid jealousy.  We should have expected it, but it is a shock when we learn that those Elvis-in-a-light-socket wigs covered baldness.  In mainstream films we always know we’re in rich decadence when we see bathers drinking champagne in a marble jacuzzi, and so here.  Debbie Reynolds plays Liberace’s Austrian mother, she is so unrecognizable that I thought it might be Meryl Streep doing another elderly lady impersonation.  The various businessmen and lawyers are shysters in mutton chop whiskers and flared trousers, and they all look like wretched scavengers.  Great Performances.

 
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Posted by on June 14, 2013 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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